Monday, October 30, 2017

The art of game capture: my 'Let's Play', four years in the making

Since I discovered this form of media existed, I have slowly cultivated the idea to produce something to call my own.

I believe it was around 2013 that I stumbled upon the world of Let's Plays. Although they've likely been around since the availability of capture technology, it really seemed like 2013 was the year that it was becoming mainstream. It was the first time that it garnered my interest.

Sure, YouTube celebrities like PewDiePie and Markiplier were at the forefront of the Let's Play movement, but it was a growing company known as Achievement Hunter that introduced me to Let's Play.

I remember stumbling upon my first Let's Play video. Two men were operating the stiff hands of a ridiculous game called Surgeon Simulator while commentating on their flubs as they attempted do heart surgery. It was absolutely hilarious. Since then, I've been following the Achievement Hunter troupe and taking notes on the technology that they use to create these wonderful videos.
The first iteration of my video game project.
Now, I have no intention of ever making a career out of this. I simply wanted to do this because it combined many aspects of my passions in digital media. Video games? Check. Recording? Yeah. Video editing? Yup. The creative development process behind producing a video? Many of the elements are there. From that point on, I was sold on the idea of creating my own Let's Play channel.

But then life happened. In 2014 and 2015, I was moving around a lot in a whirlwind of work and living. I was also more heavily involved in the filmmaking community, meaning that I had to put this project on the back burner. I hate when I'm forced to do that, but there is only so much time in the day.

Around late 2014, I recorded my first Let's Play test run with my now ex-girlfriend. We played together in a world that we created in Minecraft. It was my first taste on how difficult this process could be. Tensions were high as technology was failing. It was definitely not a success. So, I decided to, once again, put the project on the back burner.

Then more moving happened and more fell on my lap, consuming all my spare time. It was 2016 and I was living in a tiny apartment in Pittsburgh. My budget was tighter than usual, but my passions remained the same. My friend came to me with the idea to start a podcast, being one that never shies away from new opportunity, I agreed to work on back-end of the podcast, handling the hardware and software that would record, edit, and release episodes of the podcast.

I found that my aspects of the process could be incorporated into recording for a Let's Play. Once ,
again, I felt the urge to make a Let's Play. This time, I used the knowledge I had gained from recording a podcast.

I started with something simple. I tried capturing a mobile game off of my phone using software that was already built into into my PC. It's a very simple setup for capturing. At that time, the Miitomo app by Nintendo had just released. This hybrid game/social app was perfect for my experiment. I event tried adding a facecam (webcam recording me while I capture my audio and the screen). The results were satisfying.

Unfortunately, I had to shelve my second attempt before I even got around to editing it. This time, it was for more personal reasons. Life really has a way of throwing some curveballs.
The most recent iteration of my gaming project.
Halfway through 2017, life was finally settling down. Again, I wanted to scratch that itch of recording a Let's Play. On a late Saturday evening, I sat down at my desk and booted up the game 20XX on my PC. Without any script or guidelines, I recorded a playthrough.

I was highly satisfied with the results, though pretty amateurish by nature. My next step was to work on the back end and prepare all of the resources necessary to edit and publish my video. After a lengthy process of trial-and-error, software testing, and workflow testing, I was satisfied with my results.

Here is the final product:

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and thanks again if you gave the video a watch. There's still a lot to improve on. My philosophy has always been that everything has room for improvement. Feel free to pass along any of your own input. I love constructive criticism.

Until the next time.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Adobe Premiere Pro: A few efficiency tips, assembling your clips

Today, I'm doing something a little different. I'm creating a guide that is not only something I wanted to share with you, but also as something that I can reference myself.

Recently, I've been jumping back into editing. Although it is something that I love doing, post-production is also something that I can go months without doing. However, with the new wave of projects I'm working on, I'm finally able to jump back into editing software, such as Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects.

I've been an Adobe user since I began working with their software back in college. When I began photography as a hobby, I started with the basics in Photoshop and Illustrator. Through that, I was introduced to many of their related programs.

From a video editing perspective, I was "classically trained" in Final Cut Pro. This was when the software was a fantastic and powerful editing too. Not the stripped down Final Cut Pro X that was released a few years later.

However, when I was working from my dorm, I had no access to Final Cut. My solution was to test out the alternatives. I found Adobe Premiere Pro to be a very effective editing tool for the jobs that I needed done.

After graduation, Premiere Pro became my primary tool for video editing. It wasn't until I started diving deeper into local video projects that I was able to heavily utilize this tool. Unfortunately, there came a time that I had to step away from post-production.

Which brings me to my point. When I haven't used certain software in a while, I tend to just forget all of the shortcuts and tricks that make my job a little easier. I've decided to go back and refresh myself on some of the basic shortcuts, not only for me but also for any new or amnesic users.

Let's start with the basics. I'm sure I'll touch base on some more advanced techniques in the future. For now, let's look at the simplest commands and organizational methods associated with assembling video clips in Premiere Pro.

Storyboard those clips:

For any project that requires organizing a variety of clips into a coherent story (through the power of editing), it might be beneficial to separate those clips into a storyboard WITHIN Premiere Pro.

How? Basically, if you look on the bottom left of your screen, you'll see all the clips for your session. There is also the option to create Bins (Folders) for your clips in order to better organize them.

Editing clips in the Source Monitor

In terms of organization and pre-Timeline actions, I just wanted to provide a quick rundown on some of the commands available for editing in the Source Monitor. These are the ones that I discovered to help with my efficiency.

Command Name
Mark In/Set In Point
Mark the beginning of your clip selection in source
Mark Out/Set Out Point
Mark the end of your clip selection in source
Shift +I
Go to In
Move to In marker in source
Go to Out
Move to Out marker in source
Overlay Selection
Replaces current position on Timeline with Source Monitor selection
Insert Selection
Inserts Source Monitor selection into the current place in the Timeline

With these tools, you can make selections from the Source Monitor. These selections can help to trim down a particular clip without any editing in the Timeline.

These buttons associated with the shortcuts are available right below the Source Monitor.

Once you have your selection, you have your Insert and Overlay tools to place your selection into the Timeline.

Assembly for screen real estate!

And in case you couldn't tell from the previous screenshot, there are various ways to assemble your workspace. If you happen to be working on a small display and can't quite cram the Source Monitor in with the Program Monitor, there is also a very nifty Assembly tab at the top, which will toggle the layout to only display the Assembly monitor, freeing up some space for any preliminary clip management and trimming before jumping into the Timeline.

So, those are just a few items I learned with clip and time management in Adobe Premiere Pro. Of course, some of these could also apply to any nonlinear editing tools, so hopefully this information can be a learning experience for all just jumping into editing or needing some productivity tips.

As I learn (or relearn) more, I'm hoping to return with some more items in the future. Thanks you for stopping by!

Until next time!


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Putting the "royalty" in "Royalty-Free"

For us content creators out there, we've been in the situation where there are certain aspects of the creation process that we cannot completely control. We want our vision to come as close as how we see it in our heads, but sometimes the resources or funding aren't always there.

Yes, this is a stock image. Yes, people actually do use these stock
materials for projects (I think).
This is where 'stock' websites come into play. There are resources available for creatives seeking to incorporate something like an image into their project. These websites provide a catalog of media that a user can download. It could be a stock photo, music, sound bit, video, graphic art...the list goes on.

It is always important to note that there are rules and regulations to using stock content. Before, we get into the subject of "royalty-free", let's discuss the "pay" method of acquiring stock content.

When I started my first podcast, Theater N'At, a couple years ago, I needed some music that could break up the introduction (what was called a "cold open") and the rest of the content of each episode of the podcast. I was lucky enough that I had previously purchased some music that was used in a short film prior to the podcast.

Since I had purchased the license to the music, I was free to use that music as our opener and closer for the podcast, without the need to provide any information on where I had acquired the music.

If my memory serves me correctly, this music was downloaded with the purchase of a Standard License, which covers all the basics of use. I believe the price of use was around $50, but once again, you're getting unlimited use out of this music track.

Most stock websites are very explicit about what they want done with their resources and how they want credit to go towards said resource. Is your project for commercial or personal use? That's also factored in.

Now we come to the term you might find on some stock websites: "royalty-free". Instead of paying for a license, sometimes the creator simply requires you to credit their work somewhere in your project. If the stock content is a video clip that is included in your own video project, you may be expected to include information about that clip in the credits at the end of your video project.

It all depends on what the stock provider expects from their user. If you're searching for something specific to add to content that you are creating and editing, don't always go with the first result that pops up in the Google results. Sometimes it's better to take the time and do your research.

Which brings me to my next big project. My next podcast, Decipher the Media, was also in need of some music to serve as an introduction. Instead of using that previous track that I've purchased and continually recycle, I decided to find some new music that would fit well with the podcast.

First, I went to the Google machine. The top results were all "sponsored", but I decided to leaf through them to see what they offered. Like the music I already had, most of them required a Standard License purchase for about $50. I wanted to work around having the pay that price for my startup podcast, but I also didn't want to give required credit in my work for something "royalty-free". So, I dug a little deeper.

I found a website called As generically questionable as it may sound, it actually provides some decent tracks with very few restrictions for usage.

Basically, here's how this website operates, based on the FAQ:

"You sign up for the site and we give you free music. If you still aren’t buying it, you can read the testimonials of our users who will happily agree there is no catch at all."

"We are sponsored by a stock footage company called Footage Firm. Because of this sponsorship, we don’t worry about making money — we only worry about delivering the best resource possible for free production music. In exchange, Footage Firm gets some good PR and marketing."

"Our music comes with a royalty-free, worldwide license agreement that never expires...You are permitted by our license agreement to use our music commercially as long as you add substantial value to the songs."

"The term “substantial value” means you modify or add to the music in a way that makes it uniquely yours. Simply by adding it to a video or singing lyrics on the song, you add substantial value to it."

Digging even deeper, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a catch. I also needed an elaboration on the music usage, since there was no current mention of usage in audio media, such as podcasts.

Here's what I found in the more detailed user agreement:

"For any Stock Files you obtain from us, you may incorporate them into any project, commercial or otherwise, including feature films, broadcast, educational, print, multimedia, games, merchandise, and the internet. Once you incorporate a Stock File into your project, you can share your finished project freely, but you may not share the underlying individual Stock File as a standalone file with anyone else. (That said, you can share individual Stock Files with your client or someone else for the limited purpose of getting their help with your specific project, assuming you are adding substantial value to the project apart from inserting the Stock Files. Otherwise, they need their own license.) You also agree to use your best efforts to avoid letting the Stock File be accessible to others as a standalone file, but since that’s not always possible, your inability to prevent copying will not be considered a breach of this License." 

To my understanding, as long as I'm not just sharing the unaltered music file, I am free to use it in any sort of media project. This includes commercial use. That's a pretty good deal.

As implied, it's important to read these agreements because every royalty-free website is going to have different rules and regulations for using their content. You don't want to get caught in any sort of legal situation just because you didn't read the fine print. So, always do your research.

The particular track I used is now the current opening and closing tune for my podcast. I'm sure that I'll try to switch it up in the future, since these tracks can still be particularly generic and may not be the closest thing thematically.

This is a particularly interesting topic that I'm sure I'll touch on in the future, hopefully in a different format, such as stock video or images.

Until next time.

This is actually part of a whole series of stock photos. Seriously. Look it up.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Spending some time with podcasting and recording

So, I did a thing. I've been posting all over social media about my little recording setup and starting a whole bunch of new projects. So, what exactly does it all mean? Well, to break it down, I've been toying with the idea of recording for almost two years now. Recording what? Audio and video that directly feeds into my computer. Not to be confused with location video or sound.

To elaborate, I decided to start my own podcast. While it is still in the process of taking identity, I've always wanted the experience of doing a podcast.

Previously, I have worked to produce another podcast, which was pitched to me from a friend and colleague. While he did the talking with his co-host, I was behind the scenes, monitoring the audio being recorded and the equipment that was being used.

It was a pretty basic setup. Let's start with the hardware. I purchased two USB microphones that were designed for audio recording from a desk setup. I believed that this would be a simple process. Of course, I was wrong. These mics were not designed for simultaneous multitrack recording. At that point, I had to do my research to understand the components of multitrack recording.

I concluded that I needed a mixer that could distinguish and separate the mics that we were recording on. It turns out that USB mics can't be easily integrated with such a setup. I went the cheap route and I was paying for it. Go figure.

So, I had to create a workaround where my computer's sound hardware could separate the lines going directly to the computer's board. It was crude. Very crude. And certain reverb issues would arise in this setup. At certain times, the issues would get so bad that I would have to stop the podcast recording to correct them.

Each host had their designated USB microphone. I would record audio through a multitrack session created in Adobe Audition. Alternatively, I used Audacity for simpler recording sessions. They both work just fine for what I needed to accomplish.

As I mentioned, I had to go into the properties to manually assign instructions to each of the two microphones so that Audition could detect each mic separately to record on their designated track. I don't quite remember the process, but there are instructions that I found on Google. Good ol' Google.

After a handful of episodes, I had to take the back seat with this initial podcast. The hosts chose to record their own episodes with their own equipment while I focused on more pressing matters at the time. I swore I would return to active podcasting... but then life happened. As it always does.

Besides the podcast, I tested some video capturing via software that I found online, overlaying those captures with audio that I would record on the microphone. I never published any of my tests, but I was able to confirm that it was possible with my setup.

I was capturing mainly video games via unique screen capture programs and recording my audio commentary in either Audition or Audacity. I wanted to attempt a "Let's Play" series, figuring out how to put my own spin on it as I went along. None of those old videos every surfaced and I ended up having to shelve the project and put the idea on the back-burner. Again, life happened.

It was around this time that I decided to revisit some of these old concepts and interests. I recently had the chance to record the first episode of my new podcast, Decipher the Media. While it is still a work in progress, I'm taking what I know from previous experiences to improve on my knowledge of recording.

The first episode had a lot of help from Brandon Keenan (a guest on the episode) and KVT Productions, improving the production value beyond my expectations. The setup we used would be ideal for recording and broadcasting sessions. While I plan to get there in quality, I want to focus on building the foundation of recording.

The first thing I did was remove the USB mics entirely from my setup. They were
causing too many issues with recording and were over-complicating multitrack sessions. Instead, I re-purposed some older location sound gear for my recording needs.

I learned that my Zoom H4n has the ability to split audio lines, which can then be fed into the computer on separate tracks. The H4n supports two tracks, which is just shy of what I need for podcasting. I'm hoping to have at least two guests on the podcast at all times, meaning I'll eventually need a mixer that can support simultaneous recording of three mics.

For now, I plan to rely on recording sound for an entire room until I can purchase a mixer with more mic inputs than I currently have. I'll do some tests to see how it comes out in an enclosed setting.

Which brings me to the next part. Given that my current living situation has a lot of extra space, I decided to put some of it to good use. Located on the second floor, I cleared out a small room that was once my office. I grew to despise using that room as my office, so I moved it. Why? I really don't have a good answer, but the space did give me an idea.

I've always wanted to convert a room like this into a small "recording studio". While resources (and space) were always limited in the past, I figured that timing and space provided me with the opportunity to give this little project a shot.

First, I had to clean all of the extra junk and furniture out of the room. With the wood paneling, sound was definitely going to be an issue. To combat this, I'll need get some sound
proofing tarps or foam to cover sections of the wall, minimizing any reverb for audio recording.

For furniture, I was just thinking of a simple setup. I would place a small workstation at one corner of the room. Following that, I could also have a table and chairs set up specifically for my podcasting needs.

I've also considered turning the room into a very small film/photography studio. Granted, this would be very difficult given the dimensions, but it would be perfect for certain smaller projects. I'll be posting some updates once the room is complete. There will also be some podcast updates coming to Cipher Eye Media very soon, if you guys are interested.

Until next time!


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Photography in the streets

Exploring my personal interests can sometimes be a struggle. Everyone deals with their everyday lives and manages their time to the best of their ability. Sometimes, time management can cut out the things that we want to do in favor of the things we have to do.

Thus, I'm always torn between what projects get done and which ones get left in the idea bin. Which brings me to this point: I've always wanted to get into street photography but never had made the time. It has always been a passion of mine to capture the realism of the city with an overtone of surrealism, thanks to various photography effects and tricks.

And so, I'm writing this as a way to prioritize this passion and get out there on the streets. In 2017, I've come closer to living in the city than ever before. Previously, I've had to go out of my way to get projects done within the city limits. Now, I'm centrally located, making easy travel around the streets in any direction.

One of a couple of examples on my excursion.
To initially tackle this project, I took to the local South Side on a night just like any other. A short walk would find me amidst booming bars, businesses, and the colorful folks that frequent the area. Depending on the time of day or the day of the weeks, different types of crowds gather at different times.

On this particular night, it was quieter than usual. I couldn't tell you why, but it seemed the perfect night to take some photos of East Carson Street.

Without fully understanding the definition of 'Street Photography' I decided to take it upon myself to just play around with the idea, choosing a calm night juxtaposed with the bright streets lights and bar signs scattered through the street. The results were very satisfying, though I'm still not sure I fully understand the concept of street photography. Maybe it's something to be left up to the interpretation of the photographer. Or maybe I should actually Google it. I'll leave that for the next batch of photos.

While editing the photos, I simply made some adjustments to the RAW files. The high ISO that I used on this particular night made the blacks a little noisier than I preferred. Next time, I'll have to try a lens that works better in low light situations.

So, depending on the brightness settings on your monitor/screen, it might be slightly difficult to interpret. If that's the case, then I do apologize. Just another thing I have to work on when I have a little more time.

While this is far from professional, I just wanted to take the opportunity to dabble in the creative process before really doing my research. I'm hoping to learn and grow as I continue the process. Next up, I'll have to check out some popular examples to improve on what I have.

In meantime I'll leave this up to your own interpretation as continue my journey to become more proactive with my interests. On that note, anyone interests in doing some portraits?

Until the next time.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Leading up to 2017; Wrapping 'Body Farm'

The crew at the West Virginia State Penitentiary
"Many years in the making". That's one way to describe it. And a great way to pick up where I left off. After the venture that was 5 Minutes, my first 48 Hour Film Project, the majority of that crew were able to come back together to start filming the horror feature film Body Farm.

Fast forward to 2017. After a lengthy shooting schedule, which included some required reshoots of initial footage, principle photography finally wrapped last month.

With some time away from my personal work, I felt this would be the perfect occasion to revive my
blog, in which I discuss my personal experiences in interests relating to media. Although I've been light on projects in recent times, I have stuck with this project to the very end.

Some of our key cast and crew on set
In my sort-of absence from the "spotlight" (Does anyone actually read this blog?), I've made a lot of friends and done jobs that have led to bigger opportunities. I am still willing to help out a friend when they ask for an extra hand because I know I owe them for getting me to where I am today. To the people who have made that kind of impact in my life, thank you. You know I will always be there for you.

Five years out of college and I am still dipping my foot in the water that is the film and media community. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day and I'm constantly caught in the crossroads of where to divide that time. I hope to be able to make more friends and help with other projects in the future because I've learned a lot along the way and I'm thankful for having the opportunity to be involved in so many people's passions through these short years in Pittsburgh.

Brandon Keenan preparing for the shot
One such passion is from my friend and colleague, Brandon Keenan. When we started working on Body Farm a few years ago, I was surprised that he chose me as his Director of Photography. Not because I felt I was incapable, but because I've never had someone place so much trust in me. He was asking me to tackle a project created strictly from his true passion. This was his baby and my lens was the eye that revealed his world to the audience. I was both excited and nervous to take up the challenge.

The crew that was assembled came from different backgrounds, and we worked to use those backgrounds as our strengths on the project. Once we hit our stride, the shoots became second nature to us and the process smoothed over time.

Actor/Director/Producer Nick LaMantia (right) with actor Brett Hollabaugh
Nick LaMantia of Nickel 17 Productions came on board as an additional producer to help iron out some of the areas that we were a little wrinkled in. There was also Tim Roberts, who has such an extensive background in camera work that he became my most valuable asset with camera operations, shot setup, set lighting, and other important details behind the camera. With sound, we found the talented Mr. Dave Majcher.

Kevin Hejna making his Body Farm cameo
Finally, I can't go without mentioning Kevin Hejna, who kept us all in line and on schedule during the shoot. This wouldn't have been possible without all of his hard work and dedication.

Of course, these are not the only talents involved with producing this monster. There are far too many people to name. Even those who may have only helped for a day were integral to the whole process. I want to thank each and every one of you for your assistance. We couldn't have done this without you.

Actor David Ogrodowski
What made this production work so well was the fine-tuned engine that was the cast and crew's relationship on set. We knew the right moments to be serious, communicate, and work through shots, yet at the same time, there was never any tension when working on this set. We all became close friends and colleagues and we had a lot of fun every day we shot.

Sure, it could get stressful sometimes. That comes with any film production. But we knew how to work around the tough parts and stay well connected with each other.

Now we have gone into post-production, with process quickly moving to the next step. Brandon has been editing as we shoot, expediting the process, and he continues to edit as I am writing this, working quickly through the process to create the best possible product.

More will come once the process is complete. I will keep writing on my personal projects as well. Oh, and the name change. I forgot to mention that. I chose "Cipher Eye Selfie" as a running joke on the set of 'Body Farm' and the selfies I would post on Instagram from the set. I felt the slight name was appropriate for the soft reboot of this blog. Hopefully, this will be the last soft reboot I will have to do in a while.

Take care and talk to you again soon.