More video editing

I’ve been playing around with the public domain films at The Internet Archive. The movies in this collection are generally old industrial films, newsreels, promotional films, and amateur movies, some from as early as 1917. There’s a ton of old WWII and Cold War footage. The quality varies, of course, but much of it is very good, and very interesting to an armchair historian like me.
If you just want to watch old short films, the streaming RealAudio and downloadable Divx files are fine.

If you’re wanting to make your own videos using this footage–one could very easily make corny war movies using this stuff–I recommend using the MPEG-2 files rather than the Divx files. MPEG-2 is a less-lossy format than Divx, plus the files are higher resolution. They’re also about 10x larger, but worth the extra trouble if quality is important to you.

Adobe Premiere won’t allow you to do anything with the large MPEG-2 files out of the box, but don’t let that stop you. I found a freeware MPEG-2 codec. I have no idea how long this link will be good, but give this link a shot. Gatermann warned me about doing a Google search on that specific filename–it brings up some pretty disturbing content. Try searching on things like MPEG2, Win32, and codec, rather than the specific filename.

The MPEG-2 files don’t play back well on your computer because they’re interlaced, but they’re beautiful in Premiere and on a composite monitor.

Another hint for using this archive: Don’t download the files with your browser. FTP into ftp.archive.org. A separate FTP client will download the files much more quickly than your Web browser. Make sure you’re using binary mode. You can find a free GUI FTP client here if you need one.

Dave gets a movie rental card

Faced with producing a documentary film, and faced with the increasing prospect of doing it on my own without help from people who know what they’re doing, I went on an excursion last night. Well, first I called up a friend to see if she was doing anything. She wasn’t home, so I decided to do something useful with my Saturday night: research.
I drove to Hollywood Video, filled out a membership form and handed over my driver’s license and a credit card. I came home with two installments of Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball series. I wanted to see how Burns did documentaries, particularly how he handled stills and mixed stills with old movies. So I grabbed the 1910s-1920s installment and the 1930s-1940s installment. Then I drove over to Wal-Mart and picked up a couple of frozen pizzas. Then I came home to watch and learn.

Burns usually shoots still pictures the way a cameraman would shoot a scene, either shooting the less-important part of the scene and then panning over to the important part, or shooting a panoramic view of the whole picture, then zooming in on the important subject. When faced with a good, well-composed and well-cropped closeup, he just lets it sit alone. On television, there’s no such thing as a still–the image will jump a little–so you can get away with that more than you might think. He added a little more life with sound effects and voiceovers. For example, when showing a picture of a sportswriter, he added a voiceover and the quiet sound of a manual typewriter. That’s an interesting trick I’ll have to remember–when you can’t engage the eyes with much, engage one of the other senses.

And what about transitions, the whiz-bang stuff that Premiere gives you so much of? If Burns ever used a transition, it was very subtle. Where I looked for transitions, I found only hard scene changes.

But for all his critical acclaim, I was disappointed with the 1910s-1920s installment. Babe Ruth Babe Ruth Babe Ruth Babe Ruth. I had to check the tape to make sure this was Baseball, and not a biography of Babe Ruth. Yes, Babe Ruth was (unfortunately) the most important player of that era. But Babe Ruth wasn’t baseball. He was a fat drunk who hit a lot of home runs mostly because he had a ballpark with a nice short porch in right field for left-handed hitters to hit into. And he mostly played right field, so he didn’t have to run around a lot. Yes, in his early days Ruth was a tremendous athelete. But he didn’t take care of himself, and had he played anywhere else, he would have been far less remarkable.

What did Ken Burns have to say about the 1929 World Series? Author Studs Terkel came on and talked about how his buddy had tickets to Game 1 of the series and wanted him to go. He didn’t go. Lefty Grove was expected to pitch. Instead, Howard Ehmke (who? Exactly.) pitched instead. There’s a story behind that, but heaven forbid Ken Burns spend 30 seconds telling that story when he can use that 30 seconds to show a package of Babe Ruth-brand underwear instead.

Screw it. I’ll tell the story. About mid-season, A’s owner/manager Connie Mack went to Howard Ehmke and told him he was letting him go. Ehmke was a veteran pitcher, but he was well past his prime, and Mack rarely pitched him–six of the other pitchers on his staff went on to win 11 or more games that year. Mack was a notorious cheapskate and was known to sometimes only take two pitchers with him on road trips, so far be it from him to keep Ehmke around and on the payroll when he didn’t need him. At that point, the A’s were World Series bound, with or without Ehmke, and the whole league knew it. (No wonder Burns didn’t talk much about the 1929 season–the only noteworthy thing Babe Ruth did that year was remarry.) But Howard Ehmke had never pitched in a World Series, so he pleaded with Mack to let him stick around just long enough to pitch in a World Series game. Now Connie Mack may have been a cheapskate, but he wasn’t a soulless bastard like so many baseball owners of that day and later days. He had compassion on his veteran pitcher and said OK. Now I don’t remember whose idea it was, but they even talked about him starting one of the games. Mack asked him which game he’d like to start. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Ehmke answered, “The first one, sir.”

Absurdity. The best pitcher in the game that year (and for most years to come) was one Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove. You play the first game to win, so you go find your best pitcher to go win it for you. So the whole world expected Lefty Grove would pitch Game 1. So the Cubs, expecting left-handed fireballer Grove, loaded up their lineup with right-handed power hitters. At the last possible moment, Mack announced his starting pitcher would be soft-throwing right-hander Howard Ehmke. Ehmke pitched the whole game. He won, too, striking out 13–a series record.

The 1929 World Series was one of the most dramatic series ever, with the A’s staging a gutsy come-from-behind victory in Game 4, scoring 10 runs in the 7th inning to overcome an 8-0 deficit. Lefty Grove came in to pitch the 8th and 9th and preserve the victory, notching his second save of the series.

But since Babe Ruth sat at home while all this was going on, I guess nobody wants to know about it. They don’t want to know about any of the colorful guys on either team either. Jimmie Foxx was the greatest right-handed home run hitter in the game before Mark McGwire came along. A converted catcher, Foxx would play seven positions at some point in his career. Whereas Ruth began his career as a pitcher for the Red Sox, Foxx wrapped his up as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Like Ruth, he was always smiling. And he was one of the nicest guys to ever play the game.

The rest of the Philadelphia clubhouse wasn’t as nice as Foxx. Left fielder Al Simmons was a vicious hitter–arguably there were two things on that team meaner than Simmons’ bat, and those were Foxx’s bat and Simmons’ temper. It was a good thing the A’s didn’t lose much in those days, because after every loss, Simmons, hotheaded catcher Mickey Cochrane, and hotheaded pitcher Lefty Grove would redecorate the locker room. Connie Mack knew better than to go near the place until after they’d left.

As for Hack Wilson, the Cubs’ star center fielder, well, I’ve heard stories about him. It would have been nice to hear some new ones.

Hopefully we’ll find out a little bit about all these guys in the 1930s-40s installment. After the Yankee Dynasty of the late 1920s ended, the A’s Dynasty replaced it, and Ruth was retired by 1935–his last great season was 1932–so there isn’t much excuse to talk about him.

So while I was able to learn a fair bit about how a movie can come together and look good from discrete elements that are varied and sometimes damaged, I’m less impressed with Burns’ storytelling. To hear Burns tell it, you’d think the only teams that played baseball in that era were the Yankees, Red Sox, Yankees, A’s, Yankees, New York Giants, Yankees, the Chicago Cubs, Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals, Yankees, and the Negro League teams, who rightly or wrongly got more screen time than the non-Yankees MLB teams.

More on video editing

Last night I found myself watching some old documentaries my Dad had on VHS (mostly episodes of old Discovery channel series, circa 1990), as much to watch how they used footage from varying sources and how they handled voiceovers as for the information they were presenting–although the subject matter was something I find interesting. It’s much easier to deal with poor quality old footage today than it was then–what I’d try to do is digitize it into Premiere, then export it to a Photoshop filmstrip, then export that into PhotoDeluxe and use its automatic cleanup, then take it back into Photoshop and then back to Premiere. The result wouldn’t be perfect but in five minutes you could have a film clip that looks a lot better.
I’m not sure I can ever watch TV for enjoyment ever again–I find myself analyzing it, trying to figure out how I’d do something comparable, or better. Then again, aside from baseball games, I haven’t watched TV for enjoyment with any regularity since 1992 when Quantum Leap went off the air, so I don’t think my new hobby changes anything.

My next video project is a documentary. I won’t be spending much time behind the camera; I’m putting my journalist hat back on and doing the interviews. I don’t know yet if I’ll be the one assembling and arranging the clips. The challenges here are really different from my music video projects, but I don’t see it as being very different from my old magazine projects in college. The biggest difference is that now I can add audio to help tell the story, and the pictures can move. But it’s still a matter of gathering the story, then gathering elements that help tell the story.

This is a big change for me though. In Journalism 105–the second journalism class I ever took–they exposed us to the basics of all the major forms of journalism: newspaper, magazine, advertising, radio, and television. I learned how to write a basic, straight news story in high school, so newspaper writing was easy. Magazine writing appealed to me a bit more because you could get more creative. Radio was a nice challenge, because you had very limited space to tell the story since it would be read aloud. Advertising was the most different unit but I didn’t struggle with it too much, at least not in that class. The only unit I disliked was the TV unit, because I didn’t like storyboarding. I think I know what changed though. When I learned TV writing, we were still in the linear era. Non-linear editing systems existed, but they weren’t widespread, so that wasn’t what they taught us.

Fast-forward six years. A couple of media professionals in St. Louis taught me how to use Apple’s Final Cut Pro. I was competent in an afternoon. To me, it looked almost like desktop publishing software, the biggest difference being that final output was playback, rather than a printed page. Suddenly TV made sense, and I caught myself thinking I’d like to go back to journalism school and get a broadcast degree. Sanity quickly returned.

Video resources online. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. The biggest obstacle to learning video editing is a lack of footage to work with. Sure, if you’ve got a DVD-ROM drive, you can rip video from DVD and use it, but then you can’t legally use the result for anything unless you go get the appropriate permissions. You want to get permissions before you start on a project, but you don’t want to wait around for permission before you start getting your hands dirty. The answer is to mess around with some public domain video. Then you can do anything you want.

The lowdown: Anything produced in the United States before 1922 is now public domain. This includes video, photos, and music–although a specific recording can be protected by separate copyright. As a general rule, it’ll be 2067 before you see widespread public domain music recordings. Anything produced by the U.S. Government, whether in 1776 or five minutes ago, is public domain. And a large number of works produced since 1922 have fallen into the public domain for one reason or another–the most noteworthy example being the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve ever wondered why 800 of your 922 cable channels, seemingly including ESPN, C-SPAN and the Cartoon Network, are showing that movie at any given moment in December, that’s why–any TV station can play that movie without paying anyone a dime.

Public domain video or stills can also be useful if you’re in the middle of a project and need to illustrate a point and none of your sources (whether your own video or other video you’ve obtained permission to use) illustrate it adequately.

Finding public domain stuff is a little harder. So here’s a core dump of all the resources I’ve found in the last couple of days:

http://www.pdinfo.com — public domain music
Links page from above, includes other media
The Internet Archive’s Movie Collection, over 950 downloadable PD movies, mostly short informational or promotional pieces.
Rick Prelinger’s journal, related to the above collection.
Kino International, a distributor of old movies on VHS and DVD, some of which is in the public domain.
Retrofilm.com, a distibutor of public domain material on professional-grade media such as miniDV–they don’t sell material on VHS or DVD. Their catalog is surprisingly large and recent, including a 1980 made-for-TV movie about Jonestown that I remember seeing at least twice.
Tips for handling files from The Internet Archive Collection on various platforms
The Public Domain: How to find and use copyright-free writings, music, art and more, a 300-page book on the subject.

Tools. There’s a non-linear editing project for Linux called Broadcast 2000 that got rave reviews, but unfortunately, DMCA-related litigation caused development of the program to be halted (presumably because of fear of lawsuits, either due to liability or due to people possibly using the program to violate the DMCA) and the developer no longer offers it for download. I did find the source code on Tucows, and recent versions of SuSE and Mandrake are supposed to have it. Since the program was GPL, you can still legally download it and do whatever you want with it. GIMP was abandoned by its original authors early in its development cycle and subsequently picked up by others, so maybe Broadcast 2000 still has a future.

I found some Broadcast 2000 tips here.

Regardless of what tools you use for editing, be sure to get Virtual Dub–do a search on Google. You can use it to crop your video clips and convert between formats. I’ve had good results using the Indeo 5.1 codec at a high quality setting. Slice the video you want to use into the segments you want, leaving yourself a few frames on either side just in case you need to stretch the sequence out or decide you want to use transitions.

Editing my second video…

You know it’s a different kind of church when you see one making music videos. You’re probably not too surprised to hear that’s the kind of church I go to. And you’re probably not too surprised to hear I’m involved.
I spent a healthy chunk of time Monday editing video. A local radio personality recorded a version of “Mary Did You Know?” a few years back. I know, that doesn’t sound good, but his version is pretty powerful. I’ve heard several versions of it, and I think I like his best, and I’m not just saying that because I know people who know him. I’m also not just saying that because he gave us permission to use the recording. If that version wasn’t good, I’d have assembled a band to re-record it–one of the guys in my Bible study group plays guitar, and another one of them plays drums and has a recording studio in his basement.

So anyway, I’ve got a song I can legally use, and we secured permission to use a couple of different movies about Jesus so we’d have some footage to put to the video. And I gave myself a crash course in Premiere. Put the emphasis on “crash,” because I did bluescreen 2000 at one point. I muttered something about toy operating systems and got back to work. I hope Adobe eventually gets a clue about Linux–there’s plenty of proprietary, high-end video stuff out there for Linux, but nothing in the prosumer arena yet. And I do believe that if you build it, they will come.

After too many hours, I had something halfway workable. Since I was dealing with professional footage, I had a giant headstart. My partner in crime, Brad, had written up an outline that I more or less followed. There were one or two minor points where I didn’t agree with him about where the video fit, so I changed them, but I’d say I went with his outline 75% of the time, if not much more.

So I called Brad and asked him if he wanted to come over. I figured out how to get my DV500 to output to my ancient Commodore composite monitor, which was a good thing, The video was showing up much too dark on my computer screen, but when I exported to NTSC it was beautiful. I’d been playing with levels trying to get it right; I ended up just undoing all of the changes.

What I had can’t be considered finished product; the transitions are pretty lame where there are any at all, and I had a couple of gaps where I didn’t have any video that fit so I threw in a Rembrandt painting. Then I noticed that it didn’t matter what you did to the color on a Rembrandt painting; it still looked far better than any video I’ve ever seen, so I went looking for other Rembrandt paintings to put in. So the video was substantially done, but there’ll be minor changes.

It blew Brad away. I’ll admit, I learned from our first video, so the big mistakes that were in the first video aren’t in this one. And Premiere has great tools to help you avoid those mistakes–you can set the timeline to show every single frame in the video, and to show the waveform of the audio, which takes the guesswork out of transitions and lining things up.

At the end of it, Brad turned to me. “Dave, you are an artist. Do you know that?”

I’m not so sure about that one. Brad’s my ideas man. He tells me what he sees in his head, then I try to find a way to somehow put it up on the screen. And every once in a while I’ll get a better idea. Those are usually 3-4 seconds long. So then I revert back to his. And the result is something that looks decent. Plus a number of the things that happened were just accidents. I had some video of Jesus and the disciples walking through a field with some sheep in the background. I threw it in for lack of anything else to put there. Then about the 10th time I’d played through that sequence–you do a lot of playback during editing–I noticed that during the line “Did you know that your baby boy was Heaven’s perfect lamb?” Jesus happened to look down–towards a lamb walking past. I’d be pretty impressed if someone else put that subtle detail in there. But this was an accident. Or, more likely, it was God doing me a favor.

It’s been a lot of work, but a lot of fun.

And, incidentally, if you ever find yourself having to do any video production, Premiere 6 is an excellent product. I really dislike Adobe as a company, and I wish there were a better product out there than Premiere 6, but I sure haven’t found it. At $250, the Pinnacle DV200 bundled with Premiere 6 is a steal. If you’re into home movies and already have a camcorder with a firewire port (or are considering one), a DV200 and a little time will give you the snazziest home movies on the block.

Video insanity…

The Pinnacle DV500+ is notoriously hard to install and configure. What they usually don’t tell you is that that’s only the case under Windows 9x. Under 2000, it usually just plugs in and goes.
So, when I installed the DV500+ and connected my old Amiga 1080 monitor to its composite output and it only displayed a thin vertical bar, I ripped my PC apart, started juggling cards, chasing a phantom conflict, to no avail.

Finally, I thought to go back to my stack of old equipment and grabbed a 17-year-old Commodore 1702 composite monitor. I hooked it up to a VCR (the computer was still in fragments) and turned it on. Bingo. I hooked the VCR up to the Amiga 1080 and got a thin vertical bar.

I’d have saved myself a couple of hours of effort if I’d just tried another monitor in the first place. The 1080’s longevity wasn’t very good due to a design flaw. I long ago modified it, and I thought I used it fairly regularly as recently as 1997, but maybe it didn’t survive one of my two moves since then. The 1702, on the other hand, is indestructible. It too was a great monitor for its day and was actually a relabeled JVC. I know I hadn’t used it in 6-7 years.

So now I’ve got some Commodore equipment in my computer setup. It’s kind of nice to see that name sitting on my desk again.

That means I just have to learn about Premiere and Pinnacle’s bundled toolkit and continue to develop my eye. I’ve always been just an above-average designer–in j-school I was known for giving you work that was 75% as good as someone who really knew their stuff, but I’d have it done in 1/3 to 1/2 the time–but this time it’s not like I have much competition. I’m competing against mindless, brain-numbing lowest-common-denominator TV.

I ran across this quote today from Bono, U2’s lead singer, about TV: “You just have to not fear the flaws. The flaws are what make it interesting.”

Well, that’s very true about people, and to a certain extent that’s true about machines as well. After all, aren’t the flaws what gave the Ford Edsel its appeal? But I guess I just have such a longstanding bad taste in my mouth about TV that I’m not willing to give it the same benefit of the doubt. I’ll put images to music and put them up on the screen because it’s the language people understand. But it’s still the boob tube.

Time to go see some old friends, and some not-so-old ones.

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