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Why Use a Director’s Viewfinder? – A Tutorial in VR

June 21, 2018

Here’s a quick explanation of how I use director’s viewfinders – either physical finders (like the Alan Gordon Mark Vb) or smartphone apps (like the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder)

 

Note: I’m playing with VR/360video a bit more and getting my filmmaker’s brain around ways to use it for different kinds of stories. This isn’t really a story, but I got an urge to do a very quick tutorial in VR.

This hastily shot draft gives me ideas for the future. What do you think, does VR add, or detract from the experience? I’m already making my list of things I’d do differently, or add to the next one.

We’re all still learning here.

[Production Notes: I shot this with a very basic Ricoh Theta SC camera. I recorded the audio double-system, using a small smartphone lav mic plugged into a spare iPhone 4S sitting behind me on the chair. I synced the sound in Adobe Premiere CC and edited the clips there, exporting and uploading straight to Vimeo for hosting.]

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What’s the Best Use of Mobiles in Media Production for Ministries?

June 12, 2018

There is a lot of chatter these days about the capabilities of mobile devices (phones and tablets) for media production. Journalists for newspapers and local TV stations are now trained to create, file and share their stories all from their mobile phone. Filmmakers as influential as Stephen Soderberg are even embracing mobile devices for big-screen Hollywood projects. What should ministries being encouraging their members to do with the media creation potential they hold in their hand?

I want to encourage people to launch out and start creating and sharing media with their mobiles and I think there is a best use for mobiles in media production. That is the creation of timely, “good enough” content, that places an emphasis on true engagement with an audience.

I’m not saying that a mobile, like a recent iPhone or Android phone can’t do almost everything a filmmaker could want to do. I’m saying that, for most media content creators, there are a few key areas where mobiles make the most sense.

Filming with Pixel 2 in Thailand

Going mobile in Thailand with a Pixel 2, Rode mic, Movo mount, and Manfrotto tripod.

Let me set up a context for what I’m saying. First, my ministry focus is the use of visual story media, shared mostly via social media channels, for the specific purpose of engaging audiences in spiritual conversations – not typically for entertainment or advertising.

Second, one of my roles is teaching ministries how to create compelling content using whatever resources they have at hand. That generally means mobile devices, inexpensive DSLR cameras or camcorders.

I recently spent a week in Asia with a group of students from about a dozen countries. Some were very experienced in media production, and some were novices. We were teaching a mobile-only approach to content creation. That is, the videos and other visual content we made were shot, edited, and distributed using only a mobile device. The following suggestions come from our experience and pushing to see if there are some practical “limits” on what we should be trying to achieve in a mobile-only approach.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t get bogged down with highly planned, complex content. Use a mobile-only approach for creative, immediate, relevant, authentic content. Look at many influencers on places like YouTube. They aren’t creating really deep and complex content, but often focus on generating lots of content quickly, with compelling creative ideas. Most don’t create really complicated mini film projects for every post.
  • Emphasize immediacy and authenticity. Shoot current and cultural events with still and video clips, create very brief vlog-style testimonials and stories, then post your content quickly. Listen to conversations people are having, off and on-line, and join in the conversation with your own content, without delay. Authenticity is a real value held by most people – even if they follow pop stars. Pop stars will carefully curate a portion of their social media, but they also mix in more impromptu content as a way to make themselves seem more approachable, like you’re their new best friend out of 6 million followers!
  • If you have media professionals on your team, try to avoid paralysis by perfectionism! How can my God-given care for quality be a problem? When it effectively paralyzes me or delays the distribution of content because I want to “do it right.” In this case, doing it right may be exactly the wrong thing. Discipline yourselves to create quick-turnaround content that will encourage on-going engagement with your audience while you work on deeper, more complex content. Get it done and out into the conversation.
  • Overall, as you plan a content strategy, it’s wise to include a mix of immediate, less complex content, with some pieces that are more complex and deeper. We want to present competence and trustworthiness, but also approachability. As we think of our engagement strategies, let’s look ahead and develop some content that is well-planned and deeper, but also plan for the more frequent creation of spontaneous content that gives that balance.
Beastgrip Rig

Tricking out an iPhone with a Beastgrip mount, Rode shotgun mic, lens adaptor, and Tamron 24-70mm lens.

Ultimately, who am I to argue with Stephen Soderberg? Of course there is a place to take advantage of a small, inexpensive, good quality device for some larger projects, even narrative feature films. So go ahead and pull out your mobile device (with $2000 worth of accessories!) to serve as a camera on a larger project, especially if mobility and low-profile is a need. But for that complex project, it’s advisable to pass on the rest of the production and post-production work to other devices, like laptops and desktop computers. They just have the power and sophisticated tools to make it more effective.

HOWEVER, by all means we should be using our amazing cameras and apps to create immediate, creative, relevant, authentic content.

Professional Video Apps for Android Devices – Do they exist?!

February 15, 2018

(Updated 17 February 2018)

I’m happy to say that, after a long time of lagging behind the iOS world, Android devices and apps are finally available to enable professional production on this platform.

And, because most people in the world are using an Android device, it makes sense to think about recommendations to help them, especially non-professional media creators, to choose the best tools for their video content.

For serious video content production, you may want to consider a video-specific app. While almost every general camera app allows you to choose still image capture or video capture (maybe even animated GIF and other formats) there are a few dedicated apps that only shoot video. I highly recommend checking these out, even if they add an app to your collection (who can resist just one more app?!)

Why would you choose a video-only app?

One reason is because a good dedicated video app will have controls that are designed for video shooting and you won’t get settings mixed up when switching between modes on a normal camera app. For instance, this can happen when switching between 4:3 aspect ratio high-definition still images and shooting HD video, which is typically 16:9 aspect ratio on your screen. Some apps choke a bit when switching. And, some apps are set to automatically start video recording when you switch to video mode. I can’t figure out why that’s a default feature (sometimes non-defeatable) but it’s a pain when you’re trying to shoot dedicated video. Ultimately, dedicated apps are designed for video shooting, and make the most of their interface and features.

As with still image capture apps, the image quality from these is essentially the same, if you shoot with the same settings (resolution, data rate, picture profile, etc.) The device hardware is really the defining and limiting factor. [BIG NOTE for low-end phone users; some of these apps are not recommended for you. Filmic Pro won’t even install on my Samsung Galaxy J5 (Marshmallow OS). My best advice if you have a low-end device is to go with a standard camera app, like Open Camera, that lets you shoot stills and video. No need for a specialized app.]

Here are three dedicated video capture apps that are the top of charts for me. I’ll review them in my general order of preference, but they’re all very good. Any weaknesses are generally pretty minor.


Filmic Pro ($15 USD)(plus in-app purchases for some specialized features)

Among mobile filmmakers and mobile journalists, Filmic Pro has long been the go-to app. It started life as an iOS-only app but the Android version is fully developed and gives you a full feature set for truly professional video production on a mobile device.

 

Filmic Pro gives you:

  • Full range of manual controls with a very friendly on-screen interface for manual focus and exposure control. Manual controls on all apps will be device dependent. They should work on most higher-end phones. On a lower-end phone, you still have manual control, but some features, like the sliders you see in the above screen capture, won’t be there.
  • Shooting aspect ratios for every popular format, including square format video, and UI rotation for simple vertical video shooting.
  • High resolution (including 4K) and data rates, depending on your device capabilities. Excellent video quality, including smooth motion.
  • Accurate frame rate. Other apps’ frame rates can vary widely, even if set in the app.
  • Format presets if you want to switch quickly between settings. For instance, a 4K setting and a FullHD (1080) video setting without going through many menus.
  • Automatic exposure and focus “pulling” for more professional control.
  • A continuous auto-focus mode that uses most of the screen as a focus area. This is great for gimbal and other handheld shots where you have a lot of motion in the scene.
  • App upgrades available for even more professional features such as picture profiles and LUTs. (Not really needed by mere mortal visual storytellers.)
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.
  • Live audio monitoring, with on-screen meter, is possible with the proper adapters.

Weaknesses:

  • Lots of options that may be confusing to non-professionals.
  • Display can be cluttered if you have lots of features activated, but they are instantly accessible.

Cinema FV-5 Pro (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema FV-5 is a companion to Camera FV-5, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere. But it can also be purchased and used separately as a dedicated video capture app. As with Camera FV-5, the Cinema version is full-featured and well-suited to professional mobile production. If you want a dedicated app, I feel it’s the best choice for lower-end devices, even if features are disabled.

Things I especially like include:

  • Simple controls when first opened
  • Nice implementation of manual controls including a slider for focus and exposure on devices that have the Camera2 API.
  • Paid version (Pro) has full resolution and high data rate capabilities, up to your device’s specs.
  • The most common manual control I like to tweak, exposure compensation, is on screen all the time. Nice.
  • On-screen display of current settings.
  • Continuous focus mode is very accurate and useful.
  • Audio monitoring and on-screen meters
  • Professional features like interface customization, a histogram for video levels, etc.
  • Quick switching between features such as a histogram, stabilization on/off, etc.

Weaknesses:

  • No vertical video mode (interface rotation) – see my comments on other apps for my thoughts on why this is useful.
  • Locking and unlocking some functions, like manual exposure, could be simpler – a few too many clicks to release and re-set.

On a low-end device like my Galaxy J5 I found:

  • Some functions don’t seem to work consistently, like manual exposure by touch/hold on the screen. No change anywhere you put the “box.”
  • Of course, the manual controls change to meet the device specs. The capabilities are still there, just some controls get more basic.
  • Other device-dependent features, like 4K video recording, may be missing on low-end devices.

Cinema 4K (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema 4K is designed with many professional features for high-end devices. As the name implies, it can shoot up to 4K if your device can handle it. It is set up for more experienced shooters, but I find the controls are very intuitive and responsive.

I’m reviewing this app with a caveat. On my Google Pixel 2 (still pretty state-of-the-art as I write this) I get great general image quality. However, I see a lot of motion artifacts anytime I pan, tilt, or have a lot of motion in the shot. I’ve tried to track it down, and have decided it’s the app. My A/B testing with Filmic Pro on the same device shows ‘jerky’ motion in footage from Cinema 4K versus Filmic Pro footage, with the exact same settings. I’m willing to consider that it could be unique to the Pixel 2, so until I can do more tests with other phones, I’ll just leave it at that.

Cinema 4K gives you:

  • A very nice on-screen interface with common controls and settings clearly accessible.
  • Extensive, but easy-to-use manual controls, device dependent.
  • Very friendly settings menu that covers almost everything on one screen rather than many menus
  • Full range of resolutions and data rates for video files, device dependent.
  • Full screen, clean display when recording, but manual controls appear when you tap the screen. Nice implementation.
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.

Weaknesses:

  • My biggest concern is actually image quality. Images without a lot of motion are great. I see a lot of motion artifacts in Cinema 4K footage when the camera is panning across a scene. I’ve done a lot of A/B testing and can’t fix it. I believe it is related to variable frame/bit rates used by most apps in mobile devices.
  • No vertical video adaptation. This has been a “rule” in the professional filmmaking world, but it’s passé, to me. Let us shoot 4K vertical video!
  • No live audio monitoring, or on screen audio meters.
  • Cinema 4K will install on a lower-end phone, but many features are disabled. I don’t recommend it for low-end devices (see my note above.)

 

 

Handling Antagonists in Social Media: Our Public Voice

July 25, 2017

angerIn many places where we seek to love and serve people, there are groups and individuals who oppose us and our message, no matter how much love we pour into our content. One friend of mine says it’s not unusual to get 90% negative comments on his posts that are intended to speak of peace for people in his region.

It may be self-evident to you, but I have to remind myself that my response to antagonistic comments could be a powerful influence to everyone in my audience, not merely an answer to a hater.

Imagine you’re in a public place like a shopping mall or university center. A person spots you from across the room as you are discussing something important with a new friend. They make a beeline toward you, yelling out angry comments and insults before they even reach you. It’s a tense moment. At least one person seems to be spoiling for a fight, right there. How would you respond?

Many of us are naturally inclined to avoid any kind of confrontation, especially a direct one like this. We would try our best to just back away, apologizing, fearful, and praying for others to intervene to cool down the situation. Others of us are very bold, risk-takers, and would step up ready to embrace a challenge (hopefully, with fists un-clenched.)

angry (1)In social media, I have encountered such situations. A number of years ago I was developing a feature film project in Latin America and I was using early Facebook and other social media to raise awareness of the project. A certain gentleman, who lived on the other side of the world, decided that we were evil people, exploiting the indigenous people, etc. (We were making the film at the request, and in partnership with, an indigenous group in the Amazon.) He didn’t know me, but he attacked me, and threatened to rally people in the country to shut us down.

Now, this was Latin America, so things never go according to plan in the best of times, and I had no real concerns that he could have any clout. My partner thought I should just block and ignore him. I thought I’d at least try to engage with him to see if I could convince him that we were OK.

happy copy

It became an interesting conversation for me, though I don’t think my arguments were very convincing for him at first. He did cool down and kind of disappear after a while. But, I did get to know something about him, his own past and personal issues that seemed to drive his anger. So, I felt it was fruitful. He never went further with his threats and actions, and it all basically blew over.

Ironically, a year or so later, he contacted me again. He was raising money for a project to help the indigenous group for which he was an advocate (in East Asia) and actually asked for my advice and help with his own project. It was a crazy turnabout, but I believe it was because I treated him with respect and tried to understand where he was coming from when he was attacking us. I pray for his project.

Of course, it could have gone much worse. Sometimes, and you may not be able to discern this in advance, it is truly fruitless or even dangerous to engage much. However, in this case, I felt it was worth it.

Now, in my story, all of this deeper engagement was through email, so it wasn’t public. However, if it had taken place in “public” on a comment thread on some social media site, I would have to discern the value of the engagement.

peace-talksMy theory is that, in a situation like this, where we try to have a conversation with an antagonistic person, our comments may be more for others in your audience who are “eavesdropping” on your conversation, than they will be for the person with whom you are conversing.  We can’t know if there could be some softening if our gentle speech turns away their anger.

I often get wise advice from people who say it’s not worth the engagement. But, as my original example in the shopping mall, I may also consider that there are many more people with whom I’m communicating. Anyone within “earshot” could also hear my arguments and my tone, and it could be beneficial to them as they assess just who I am.

Am I a good or bad person?

Does what I am saying in answer to common objections sound reasonable?

Do I sound like they could have a safe conversation with me?

This indirect communication could form an important part of someone else’s journey.

What do you think? Have you had this kind of experience on social sites? How should we handle people who oppose us in public? Are there principles or “rules” we should follow?

  • Tom

 

 

 

Image credits:

Icons made by [https://www.freepik.com] from www.flaticon.com

Icons made by [https://www.flaticon.com/authors/epiccoders] from www.flaticon.com

Icons made by [https://www.flaticon.com/authors/baianat] from www.flaticon.com

4 Reasons Why Homeschoolers Should Study Screenwriting (and get English Comp credit for it.)

May 25, 2017

If you have a budding homeschool writer or filmmaker, they should be learning to write screenplays. Screenplays represent a unique literary genre that forms the foundation of one of the most influential forms of art and entertainment in our world today, movies and other visual stories.


I’ll begin with two quotes:

“Film is the literature of our age”  AND  “Those who tell the stories shape the culture”

script-tight

The first is by Steven Spielberg. I’ll reveal who said the second one in a moment.

These two quotes remind us how influential and pervasive stories through film have become in our culture. No one can deny the influence of these stories, whether told on a cinema screen or a mobile phone. My 30+ years as a professional filmmaker have convinced me of the importance of raising up a new generation of filmmakers and writers who will take us into the future.

So here are the four main arguments I’ll make to encourage you to consider screenwriting as an important field of study for your creative homeschooled student.

  • Screenplays are a unique literary genre, deserving disciplined study.

  • Screenplays make use of the major elements of all good creative writing.

  • Screenwriting is the foundation of a highly influential cultural expression, movies.

  • Christians can make better movies.

First, as Mr. Spielberg argues, screenplays made into movies are the pervasive form of storytelling in our modern culture. And, they truly are a literary genre unto themselves. They require discipline and study to master their unique form and storytelling conventions. For instance, did you know that screenplays are always written in the present tense? That’s because all we can write is what we see on the screen in front of us. We can’t make full use of inner thoughts of characters. A well-written screenplay reveals their choices through the ways they act when challenged. If you have a budding screenwriter, this is a great creative challenge.

Secondly, screenplays make use of the same storytelling elements found in other literary forms, such as short stories and novels. For instance, we must create interesting and dimensional characters, devise interesting plots with rising conflict, and draw our audience into the story with vivid descriptive language and compelling themes that touch our emotions while entertaining us.

Third, most people don’t understand the immense importance of the screenplay as the foundation of all movies. It has been said that it’s possible to make a bad film from a good script, but it’s impossible to make a great film from a poor script. It’s like the blueprint, foundation, and framing of a movie. Of course, movies–good and bad–exert tremendous influence in our culture.

That leads us to my final point

…making films that are powerful and influential and reflect a Christian worldview. I believe all Truth is God’s Truth, and that all Beauty reflects His Glory. I hope to envision and equip young storytellers to follow God’s call to speak powerfully to culture through many forms of films and videos. Most of us admit that few popular films that are labelled “Christian” exhibit the highest literary and artistic reach we are capable of. There was a time when the Church led the way in the arts. We should aim that high.

Now, to the second quote; “Those who tell the stories shape the culture.” It’s from Aleister Crowley, the famous British occultist in the early 20th century. His vision was to undermine the Christian worldview and values of his culture, and he argued for a takeover of popular storytelling to achieve his end. He saw the potential.

I have had the privilege of teaching many passionate and creative young homeschoolers who are learning to tell powerful stories of their own. I am so encouraged by them, and they give me great hope for the future. They are learning to tell stories that change the world.


For further reading: There are a zillion screenwriting blogs out there, but one I especially like is The Rabbit Room. They have a film section, plus many other forums that, to me, represent some of the best writing and thinking about the arts in the Church today.

Ministry Media Audit

May 12, 2017

002-laptopPeriodically, and especially when you are beginning to plan a media strategy or campaign, it’s important to understand where you have been and where you are right now.

In the marketing world, this is called a social media audit and competitive analysis. The goal is to examine what you have been doing, historically, to help guide your next steps.

I’m going to tweak the language here to better fit media ministry teams, but there are a lot of resources out there that provide various kinds of social media audit checklists, templates, and advice. I also assume that your past media presence may have not been exclusively in the new/social media space.

As we look at an existing media ministry, large or small, here are some key points we want to study:

  • Current Media Activities and Content
  • Current Media Presence
  • Current Audience
  • Current Performance
  • Our Persona in these channels and in this content
  • “Competitors” – Analysis

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each section. You’ll want to make lists and gather information on:

  1. Current Media Activities and Content
    • Projects (broadcasts, distribution, and campaigns of various kinds)
    • Content Assets (films, programs, recordings, and other media we own or create)
  1. Current Media Presence
    • “Traditional” media (TV & Radio stations, print distribution, etc.)
    • Social/New media (web sites, blogs, social pages, accounts, etc.)
  1. Current Audience
    • Size (overall, and by channel, above)
    • Description (demographics, personas, and how they compare with your Objectives)
  1. Current Performance
    • Growth (Do you have historical numbers?)
    • Compare with Objectives (If you have existing objectives, do a comparison. If you are creating new Objectives, how does this fit?)
    • What kinds of content have been most effective in reaching your goals for each media channel?
  1. Our Persona in these channels and in this content
    • Ways we present ourselves (Do you have a consistent public ‘face’? Do you feel that our identity is appropriate to your Objectives and ministry Context?)
    • Consistency across your media channels and content
    • Consistency with your Objectives
  1. “Competitors” – Analysis
    • Like-Minded: Are there others in this same ministry space? (Objectives, Content, Success, Strategies, etc.)
    • Others: Are there others, even opposition, who are influencers in your area? (Objectives, Content, Success, Strategies, etc.)
    • What can you learn from others in your ministry space? (Things you might like to imitate? Things that seem to work toward your Objectives? Things you want to avoid?)

If you take the time to dig into these questions in more detail, it will help you see our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and to help guide your Persona, Follow-Up, and Content development.

This content is part of what I teach in the Foundations of Media Strategy course at MissionMediaU. Check it out if you want to learn more.

 

Icons made by Freepik from http://www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Periodic Table of Instructional Design –

December 2, 2016

Periodic Table of Instructional Design – a Fun and helpful infographic http://ow.ly/yrhh306LE3Z #onlineeducation #instructionaldesign

I spend part of my time now teaching and developing online courses. This handy infographic gives dos and don’ts related to everything from learner interactions to behind-the-scenes technical considerations.

periodic-table-small