Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Making A Simple Music Video On A Budget Of Nothing

Last week I made a simple video for my tune 'Broken':

It's just a simple thing, but I'm really pleased with it, and it cost me £0. That's $0, at the current exchange rate. A pretty good price, I think.

I hope one day to have money to spend on a proper video, but for now I simply don't. Cameras, lights and people who know what they are doing with them don't come free, and nor should they. Still, like anyone doing music, I'm itching to get my own tunes on YouTube, as lots of people listen to music that way. Since much of the music there is illustrated not with a video but with a still or a slideshow, having a proper video there with actual video in it is just a bonus.

It turns out that by taking advantage of FLOSS video editing software on Linux and the generosity of photographers on Flickr who choose to use a Creative Commons licence that doesn't include the 'No Derivatives' clause, making a simple video consisting of a series of stills stitched together with minimal effects costs only the time required to put it together.

Here's how the video for Broken happened.

NB - Unless you are interested in the extremely fine step-by-step detail here, the following paragraphs will be intensely dull. Possibly even if you are.

First came the idea - Broken is a slow, miserable tune about being brokenhearted, meeting someone new, everything going wrong and ending up even more brokenhearted than before. In this case, rather than illustrating the song directly lyric by lyric, which would be inappropriately cartoonish, I decided that a simple series of images of broken things of different kinds would be more effective. The images would still be loosely linked to the lyrics but would not slavishly follow them.

Flickr being a large repository of photographs, many of which are CC licensed, the chances were high that everything I would need for the video would be both there and immediately available, and after tiring of hearing me say I was going to do this for months on end without actually doing so, my extremely wonderful girlfriend Brenda spent many hours last week trawling the site for CC licensed images of broken things, and eventually compiled a list of nearly 50 such images to be used. This turned out to be slightly more than was needed - after the images we'd end up choosing had been put together in order with some relation to the lyrics and with some semblance of visual continuity, several wonderful photos ended up being discarded.

I also used The Gimp image editor to make the title that opens the video and the credits at the end, listing the Flickr usernames of the 30 photographers whose work was making up the body of the video.

With all the images lined up, it was time to fire up PiTiVi (see http://www.pitivi.org/ ) and actually put everything together in order. This is only the second video I have ever made, and I honestly have no idea whether or not PiTiVi is the kind of thing that an experienced video editor would choose. It works though.

Working with PiTiVI is incredibly straightforward - you import your audio file, you import your stills, you plonk the audio file on the audio timeline, you arrange your stills on the video timeline, dragging and dropping beginning and end markers to the exact point you want, add a couple of effects, and that's it. The fact that the images were all different shapes and sizes didn't seem to matter - PiTiVi automatically resized them appropriately, adding a black border round the edges when necessary. For a different video I might have decided on a standard size and resolution and spent time with the Gimp standardising all the images, but this is 'Broken', so having the shapes, sizes and resolutions jump about is both congruous with the theme and less work, so that's what I went with.

My installation of PiTiVi isn't the latest version and doesn't have too much in the way of effects. That's probably no bad thing in the case of someone like me who doesn't have much idea what they are doing; I would guess that overuse of video effects is the same kind of beginner's error in video as is the similar overuse of audio effects in mixing. I did use a couple of slow fades, though, timed to coincide with particularly quiet parts of the song.

Output was far and away the hardest bit. By default, my installation of PiTiVi renders to a full Ogg Theora output format which YouTube doesn't recognise. Since it is based on the GStreamer engine, PiTiVi is capable of rendering to every single video / audio / container combination ever invented by anyone anywhere over the last couple of decades. Some of these render option combinations even work on my machine. Not all of them. I have no idea why.

Unfortunately, this is where the fact that PiTiVi is still at a relatively early stage of development starts to emerge - for non-experts in these matters, such as myself, PiTiVi still has no concept of 'Rendering profiles', though somewhere in the development site it is listed as something that will come in time. This means that there is no simple 'Make My Video %&^@ing Work On YouTube' button. You have to try random things, throw away the first five tries which don't render, don't work, don't upload successfully or simply burst into flames for no apparent reason, search the internets, and hope for the best.

In the end, figuring out how to render the video in a way that would work on YouTube actually took longer than the rest of the process of putting the video together. I found it very hard - if not impossible - to find information about detailed rendering options and combinations of container, video codec and audio codec that YouTube supports.

I got there in the end though, through a process of trial and error based on random forum posts from other users just as stumped about this as I was - especially this one: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=1504818 .

The settings that ended up working for me were the following:

Container: mp4mux
Audio: faac (not ffenc_alac as suggested in the thread, as this failed)
Video: ffenc_mpeg4 with the codec bit rate set to 10300000

Without changing the bit rate on the Video codec (default bitrate was 300000), the visuals came out horribly pixellated. After the change was made, there was no pixellation. I have absolutely no idea whether 10300000 is a sensible number, but it worked for the random person on the Ubuntu forum and it worked for me.

(As an aside, I'd be really grateful if someone who does know something about video and audio codecs and containers would write something somewhere on the internet aimed at those of us who Just Want A Video That Will Work On YouTube, possibly with some explanation as to what parameters might work for what kinds of video, maybe together with why. If such a thing exists, it is beyond my Google-Fu, which is clearly weakening in my old age.)

Either way, with the settings listed above, my machine took 15 minutes to render a the ~50M mp4 video file that YouTube would happily accept. Yay.

The final stage was writing to all the photographers to say thank you.

Most of them have got back to me and a few have said how unusual it is to have use of their CC-licensed work acknowledged in this way. That seems weird to me - if you're going to use someone's CC-licensed photography in your derived work, the least you can do is write to thank them. One guy said that in his experience most people using his CC-licensed stuff didn't even give proper attribution, which is why his newer work doesn't use it any more. That's a real shame, though I can understand his change of heart on the licensing. Most of the others were still pro CC and made a point of saying something along the lines of 'this is what the CC license is all about' - which it is, really, which is also what this post is all about.

I'm really grateful to those photographers for CC licensing their work, since it meant I could go ahead and make a video using those photos, knowing I had permission. The extra work it took me to add a still at the end listing them all did cost me a good ten or fifteen minutes, but so what? Before the CC license, there's no way I'd have been able to do this at all.

The song is still pretty miserable though. Sorry about that. I was miserable when I wrote it.

Posted via email from I Am Taking My Ball And I Am Going Home

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