Making Movies on a Shoestring . . . and a Bed Sheet

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By John Cannan
December 20, 2013


Making short movies may not yet be a major element in many law librarians’ skillsets, but that could soon change. In house, law library-made videos have been a marketing staple for a while now, but audiovisual presentation is becoming increasingly important for online education and teaching visual learners such as young law students and newly minted attorneys. This new era may cause some trepidation among law librarians who don’t have access to the media centers of large academic universities. In reality, it is quite easy and cheap to make instructive videos with eye-popping special effects. In this article, I’ll show you how can unleash your inner Steven Spielberg on the cheap and use this skill to advance your job and your workplace.

The Camera

You probably have the most basic piece of equipment for making movies lying around somewhere. Movie cameras are ubiquitous. You can shoot movies with most digital cameras, smart (or dumb) phones, and pads or tablets. Of course, the better the camera, the better the images recorded. Still, there is no reason to spring for an expensive piece of equipment. You can get decent movies out of the cheaper equipment. I use our office camera, which is a tiny Sony Cybershot digital camera, though I have also used the office’s Samsung Android tablet. The only dilemma I’ve encountered is figuring out how to set up the camera for a shot in which I will appear. As coworkers are often too busy to film me, I fall back on setting the camera on a bookshelf or even on a stack of reporters atop a chair. One of these days, I may spring for an actual tripod.

The Software

Probably the most expensive piece of equipment needed for movie making, aside from a computer, is the editing software. I use Camtasia Studio, which can run you around $300 if you buy it on Amazon. This gives me the ability to edit the video and audio and, as I will detail, create some basic special effects. The learning curve for the program is fairly low, and the company that makes it, TechSmith, has a lot of videos on its website to help you figure out how to use it.

There are cheaper options out there, though. Mac users can use iMovie. PC users, like me, can get Microsoft Movie Maker for free. This program gives you some basic editing functions like cutting and splitting videos and speeding and slowing down frames. It allows you to create some effects, like adding credits, sound, and running your work through filters to give it a special look. I used one of these effects when making a video showing someone doing research in a physical digest. For fun, I wanted to make the clip appear like an old-style grainy home movie. Movie Maker had a filter that could apply that very look. Well, actually, an older version of Movie Maker did. The retro filters are not available on the current version, but, thankfully, the older version was still available for download. It’s kind of like an Instagram for movies. I’ve posted the clip on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pX7V7xadOg

Movie Maker and iMovie may lack the features of more expensive programs, but I have seen people do some impressive stuff with them. An internet search on both programs can uncover some good tutorials on how to make neat movies.

Sound Effects

You can jazz up a video not only visually but also audibly.

Music can provide a creative opening and closing to a movie, and is as simple for a novice to add it in as it is for a professional. While it is a bad idea to confront the copyright headache created by incorporating your favorite pop songs into your work, there are plenty of places to get rights to free music and sound. The Internet Archive has a Community Audio database of thousands of songs. Many of these date from the early part of the previous century, but there are some more modern finds as well. I found some John Philip Sousa marches from the 1950s that I use for videos on researching statutory and administrative law. The Free Music Archive has a wide range of modern music from a variety of genres. A great resource that can add a special touch is a site called mobygratis. The recording artist Moby has made 150 of his songs available for use for nonprofit purposes. You do, however, have to send in a request saying what you are using the music for. I asked for permission to use a song in one of my courses and received permission and access to the song within 24 hours.

You can also find sites with sound effects, such as SoundBible.com.

My Bed Sheet Green Screen

The most exciting aspect of making videos, at least for me, is incorporating visual special effects. Ever since I started making videos for classes, I’ve yearned to do compositing, or chroma key. Even if you haven’t heard of chroma key, you’ve probably seen what it can do, either in the latest big-budget blockbuster or while watching the weatherman point out a front rolling across the Midwest. Basically, chroma key involves filming an image, usually a person or people, before a screen of a uniform color, e.g., blue, green, or, in the case of the movie Mary Poppins and some other Disney movies, yellow. A matte is used to screen out the blue, green, or yellow color so that the original image is superimposed upon another below it, whether it be space-dwelling aliens or a map of the Midwest. The two images are seen as one.  

Chroma key is now fairly easy to achieve on your own. The function of the matte is achieved with Camtasia by using a color picker that enables you to remove the color of your background, making that part of your movie transparent. The trick is to pick a color that is not so common that you accidentally remove it from the part of the image that you want to remain visible.

I made my own green screen out of Ikea’s Dvala sheet set, which comes in a bright green color. To make this into a screen, I tried to attach the sheet to some book cases using old reporters to weigh down the edges. (I am always trying to find new uses for old reporters.) This created too many folds and shadows, which were hard for Camtasia’s color picker to get rid of properly. So I ended up just taping the sheet to the wall of our conference room. (I did use the reporters set on top of a chair as a tripod though!)  
For my initial effort with the green screen, I filmed a short introductory segment of a class video in front of the sheet. I imported this into Camtasia, took out the sheet’s color, and made the background a clip art photo of the U.S. Supreme Court building. The result made it look like I was standing in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. You can see some pixilation around my portly figure. I suspect that this resulted from the cheap camera I was using rather than a problem with the software itself. Again, the goal was to create a video to add a little pizazz to a traditional presentation on legal research, and it was not necessary to let the perfect or the good get in the way of the good enough. The fact that there were people in the picture behind me not moving added a touch of humor. To accentuate that, I added an audio track of traffic in the background.  

With this baptism of fire in chroma key, I started getting more ambitious. I tried to interact with the screen while showing viewers how to get to a database on the library’s webpage. I swept the screen in much the way someone would use a pad. I laid this image over a video taken from my computer as I went from the library web page to the place where the database was located. I got the kind of effect I wanted, but it was hard to line up the video of my actions with those on the screen. A monitor like those used by weathermen probably would have helped. But again, why let the perfect or the good get in the way of the good enough? 

My latest effort had me split myself in two to illustrate a point, so there were two of me onscreen at the same time, kind of like Alec Baldwin in the Capitol One commercials. Again, my results weren’t perfect. I accidently cut off part of my arm during filming, so the figure is awkwardly cropped, but I could probably do it better with practice.

I’ve uploaded my clips onto Youtube so you can see how they look:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ9LQRbFSnY&feature=youtu.be

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nBeUfJClb8&feature=youtu.be

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_YItkCxXsE&feature=youtu.be

The Holy Grail for me now is to beam into a shot a la Star Trek. I’ve seen a website that allows you to achieve this effect, and I am pretty sure I can accomplish something like it with the limited tools at my command.

Is It All Worth It?

Do you need to do all this work with sound and video for an online class or a library video? Probably not, but the initial reaction from students has been positive. They appreciate the extra effort. That response is pretty important with online instruction as it helps make up for the lack of in-class interaction. And people from faculty to students seemed dazzled by the capability to achieve special effects. It conveys the sense that librarians and the library are dynamic, pushing the envelope on technology, leading the way into the future rather than merely reacting to it.

So pick up the camera and start experimenting. Let your inner Spielberg run riot.

John Cannan (jc3238@drexel.edu), Research & Instructional Services Librarian, Legal Research Center, Earle Mack School of Law, Drexel University, Philadelphia