My wife and I have been together for many years. From the first year we met I've made her a music video for her birthday because, for some reason, I thought it would be easier than thinking of physical gifts. Boy, was I wrong but it's definitely a lot more fun than shopping. These are those videos.

The process

Mandy’s birthday is June 9th so I try and pick the song I am going to use by the end of December each year. Then I have until the end of February to come up with the concept of the video. March and half of April is used to plan the shoot and rope in as many friends and family to help. I then shoot in April and the first half of May and have about 3 weeks to edit the video.

That’s the plan, every year… but it’s never worked like that! :)

I have added comments to each clip as to how it actually worked out. Wish me luck for this year :)

 

2016 - as of June 2016 you need to watch in Chrome or on the YouTube app on your mobile device to get the 360 working.

I like to be on the cutting edge of technology, or if that is to be read a different way, I like to make life hard for myself.

I have been playing around a bit with the Ricoh Theta S, a 360 VR camera, for some work that I am looking at doing for an agency. So, for Mandy’s 2016 birthday video, I decided to create a 360 video.

I picked the song back in December, but didn’t come up with the idea for the video until some time in April. So the idea was simple: have multiple versions of me singing the song to camera in a VR environment. Easy, right?

The camera, though, offered some complications. To begin with, it’s great that the Theta S has an option to shoot video but the video it shoots is far from great. The challenge is resolution.

The Theta S shoots photos at a resolution of 5376 x 2688, which looks pretty darn good, but it only shoots video at 1920 x 1080. So when you’re looking at the video on YouTube or Facebook or even the Theta S app, you’re zoomed into a small bit of a 1920 x 1080 image.

So video is very soft and mucky, but photos are pretty good. I had the idea of taking a 360 image and then dropping some green screen footage of myself singing the song on top of the 360 image. 

The first problem is that you need to squeeze and squash your green screen footage to make it look right in VR because, on your timeline in your NLE, your VR footage is flat, but it’s actually seen rounded out when you view it in 360. So just putting a flat image on that is going to look weird in 360. I didn’t actually mind how it made me look since it made me look very skinny. :) But still didn't look right. So I had to use the distort tool in in FCPX to make itlook right.

That makes it sound simpler than it was but it was a LOT of trial and error. There is a very cool set of 360 plugins you can get called Dashwood which can do things like that for you, but it’s $1199 and since this was just a project for fun and I couldn’t convince a client to do a 360 job just yet and so pay for my fun project, I had to do it the hard way.

The green screen was pretty easy to shoot, even though I had to redo it a few times, as the first time I left my glasses on and you could see the reflections of my lights in them. The other challenge was getting my son to stand in the same spot on my green screen “stage” for the whole 3:30 minutes of the song. FYI, I didn’t and you don’t have to watch that closely to see the shot of my son in the video “glitch” twice in the video, cause I had to repeat the only 1 minute that I got him to stand on the green screen. :)

This now looked pretty good, but still didn’t look right. Having all the background as a still image wasn’t very engaging, but I the video was going to be soft, so how could I overcome this?

Now the Theta S has an interval mode, which allows you to create a 360 degree time-lapse. Cool, right? Well it’s not that simple.

To begin with, the song I had chosen was about 3:30 and in order to get enough images to create a time-lapse to last that long, I’d need about 5000 shots. The Theta S can shoot intervals, but the shortest limit between images is 8 seconds. So in order to take about 5000 image, one every 8 seconds, you’d need to leave the camera taking images for about 6 hours. This is less than ideal for many reasons, but mostly because the internal memory has a limit of 1600 images and the battery only lasts long enough to take about 200 shots.

The first thing to overcome was the battery life. I have a Waka Waka solar USB charger for my iPhone which fortunately works just fine with charging the Theta S, so that solved the battery life problem nicely.

The internal memory limit was one I couldn’t really overcome. Sure, I could stop the camera, copy and delete the images and start her up again, but it would take about 10-20 minutes to do that and the break in the time-lapse would be very noticeable.

So I had to make it work with only 1600 images, which turned out not to be that big a deal. I could make each shot last 3-4 frames instead of 1-2 in the time-lapse and you don’t have to look too closely to see that I’ve actually repeated the background once, so it plays twice over in the video.

The last thing I did was to colour correct the green screen footage of me to make it fit in better with the look of the background. I ran out of time, but if I’d had more time I would have sent the whole job to Motion and used that to add 3 lights in order to create shadows across each characters face to make them fit in better with the environment.

Still pretty happy with the result. What do you think?

2015

This year I picked the song “Everything” by Michael Buble’. My original idea was to have me and a backing band (that’s a band that backs me up, not a spare one in case the band I have goes flat) turn up at a train station or some other place you might find buskers.

We would be dressed in very casual, almost unkempt and dirty clothing and then proceed to pull out homemade instruments to play. I would have a soft drink tin on a stick as microphone, the guitar player would have a guitar made out of a box with a stick nailed to it and actual string for strings. The drummer would have paint tins for drums and used chop sticks for drum sticks - you get the idea.

We would then start singing. It would be shot on steadycam rigs and sliders so that the shots would all move smoothly between the actors and we’d also have three wide locked-off shots - one in front and two on either side at 45-degree angles.

As the first verse of the song would be getting started, the scene would morph. The band and I would stay in the exact same spots, but now, instead of being dressed in casual clothes and busking outside a train station, we would all be in suits and performing the song on a stage in a giant theatre.

Measure twice, shoot once

The video would then just cut from the one scene to the other. I envisioned that I’d measure the distances between the actors and the camera so that we could change scenes, but the composition of the shots would still be exactly the same, creating a cool “two worlds” effect.

That was the plan, so what happened? 

Well to begin with, I couldn’t find a venue that I could afford to rent that suited the vision. Sure there are some absolutely beautiful and majestic theatres in Melbourne, but they aren’t cheap… and did I mention my budget was $0, zip, nada, nothing?

Then there was also a challenge with the train station as turning up with a crew of about eight people to shoot a video like this, without permission, really isn’t going to work out well for anyone. Not that I’ve ever tried something like that myself, but a friend of mine did and it didn’t work out so well for me, er him. 

So both the locations I wanted to use were off the cards and then all the friends who had offered to help and be band members ended up being busy or unavailable when I needed them. I couldn’t really complain as they were all helping me out for free but it meant that, all together, I was kind of up against it and I had to change my plans.

The new plan was to shoot the video with just me in the alley behind a friend’s house and I would be the only one changing. Simple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, on the day, the friend whose house we were going to shoot behind forgot that he had promised his wife that they would have dinner with her parents. And he only realised this about an hour before I was going to head out to his place when I called to confirm. Luckily I know more than one person who has one of those iconic Melbourne alleys behind their houses and I called another friend, Cedric, to check if he was home and if we could please borrow some power (we needed power for the lights I wanted to use). Oh and would he be able to help out? Yeah, I don’t ask for much, do I? Luckily he was home and happy to help.

I picked up my mate Kieran and headed over to Cedric’s house. We stopped along the way to buy a cheap broom and the can of soft drink, which didn’t have a price on it and so took way longer to buy than a can of soft drink should. 

Also, about an hour before all of this, one of my teeth fell out.

I should explain that last line a bit more. I have a crown over one of my front teeth. I was talking to Kieran on the phone making sure he was cool to still help out and while I was talking, I felt the crown come off the tooth. I just pushed it back on and it seemed to be ok. Gross I know, but that’s what happened. Very glad it stayed in during the shoot!

The Shoot Itself

We shot the first walking scene with a GH4 on a Nebula 4000 lite to keep it stable. We then shot the video over and over again with a combination of Sony A7s, Panasonic GH4 and BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

The GH4 was set up in front of me on an Edelkrone slider with motion control and target model so that it panned from side to side, but stayed on me. Kieran had the A7s on a CameTV portable jib on one side and Cedric had the BMPCC handheld for those close-up detail shots on the other side.

We shot the day-time scene about three times and the night-time scene about five times. Only after the fourth take of the night scene shoot did I stop to review some footage. Here, kind readers, is a lesson you should take away from my mistakes. No matter how stressed you are, no matter how little time you have, always take time to review some footage during your shoot.

I had the GH4 on autofocus while we had it on the Nebula as you can’t really control manual focus while it’s on there. I forgot to change it to manual focus when I put it on the slider. So for about six out of the seven takes we shot, it was constantly going in and out of focus.

Luckily, we had two other cameras going the whole time and so I had enough footage to work with, but it would have been a lot easier to edit if that angle was always in focus. The edit also wasn’t the easiest as using three different cameras from three different manufacturers makes colour grading and matching them challenging. But what’s a birthday video without challenges? 

Every shoot has challenges and while you can always plan better, things will always come up. It’s not about the “perfect” shoot but more about how you deal with the challenges and adjust your concept to fit the circumstances. With this year’s birthday video, I’m pretty happy with the end result despite my original vision - and, what’s more, the wife loved it and that’s all that really matters in the end!

So what are some of the lessons we can learn from this shoot?

1.Give yourself as much time as possible. My wife’s birthday, as with most birthdays, is the same day every year. So I have at least a year to plan, but most years I end up shooting and editing the video a few days before.

2.Don’t let your budget dictate your plans, at first. Every year I start out with grand plans and then as I realise what I can and can’t do, I “downgrade” my plans. By not allowing my lack of budget to limit my thinking at first, I don’t limit my creativity. Then reality hits and have to think about what is possible. This lets me find a happy middle ground.

3.Have more than just a plan A. Things will always be wrong. People will be late, gear will fail and you will miss things you normally wouldn’t. Don’t let these things get you down, sometimes the best ideas have come from being forced to improvise at the last minute. Having said all that, if you plan well, you’ll be in a better situation when you need to change things.

4.No matter how busy you are during the shoot, take the time a review some footage, just to make sure it’s ok. So often going back and reshooting is not an option.

5.With the tooth thing, brush and floss regularly :)

2014

2014 was a fun year. I came up with the concept about 5 weeks before Mandy’s birthday. I had a few ideas that involved more complex videos with cars and a lot of costume changes. A really important lesson I have learnt is that sometimes time and budget will dictate what your production ends up looking like.

The song choice was easy as Mandy was very not subtle in telling me how much she loved the song back in December. Going so far as loading it into my daily playlist :)

You really need to think about all these things when you are storyboarding. Also you really want to storyboard. Don’t just think about how you want the video to look, think about it to the level that you are planning your shots. Is it going to be a medium shot, a closeup, and so on. The more you plan, the smoother your shooting is going to be and easier it will be to edit. I shoot a lot of events and of course in those situations, you can’t plan everything. When you can, you should! :)

Also if you have time, set yourself some test shoot days. I spent a whole afternoon in a friend's garage shooting footage of me on the piano that was going to be in a different location than where the dancing was shot, but when I got it onto my timeline, the two locations didn’t work together.

I really got lucky when buying the mini piano and here is where (I know this sounds a bit airy fairy but hear me out) it really pays to be open to things and friendly.  While buying the piano, I started talking to the people in the store and told them why I was buying it. I mentioned that I was going to have to rent a dance studio and they replied “Hey we’ve got a small studio upstairs, and we really like your idea. You can use it for free if you like?” So I got to use the studio for free, which was awesome!

The whole shoot was done between 1pm and 4pm on the Monday before Mandy’s birthday. I want to say a huge “Thank you” to Kieran and Cedric who helped me shoot it and had to watch me dancing around in that leotard. I don’t think I can ever repay them for that. :)

The whole video was shot on two 5Ds and a 7D. We used two Came-TV LED light panels and a jib for some of the shots. I edited it the next day. 

One thing I noticed during the edit was that I wish I had a monitor onsite and had time to review the footage on a big screen while we were shooting. I really love the colour in the shots of me singing at 03:34, but that seemed like a cover shot on the day that we weren’t really going to use that much. I would have loved to use it more during the start of the song, but, at the time,  we didn’t shoot that angle.

All in all, I am very happy with 2014’s video. I hope you like it, and I suppose it goes without saying, but in case you were asking…. no I have absolutely no shame :)

2013

This video was dictated by song choice. I was set on using the song - the challenge of course is that it is a duet. So how could I get Mandy to be in the video without her knowing anything about it? I did consider filming her in her sleep, but couldn’t get the shots I wanted like that and even though we are married, it still would have been creepy :)

So I managed to find www.custompuppets.com who will make a puppet of you based on photos you send them. The hardest part was paying for them without Mandy noticing - she looks after the family finances!

Once they arrived, the other challenges were finding a time when Mandy wasn’t around to film and learning how to use the puppets on camera, since this was not as easy as I had thought. When your puppet isn’t doing anything the natural instinct is to stop moving or doing anything, but that's very noticeable on camera. So all the puppeteers needed to be aware of this and even if the “character” is not singing at the time, they are in shot and need to be moving in some way.

The other big challenge was finding enough people to help with the shoot. Ideally we would have 2 people per puppet and then at least one person filming. That didn't happen. In the end the whole thing was shot with just two of us - me and my good friend Kieran who helped out. 

We set up 3 cameras - my 5D and 7D and Kieran's 7D. I had a Atomos Ninja 2 connected to my 5D with a long HDMI cable and we used that to see what it kinda looked like on camera as we lay on the floor controlling the puppets. I am particularly proud of being able to make mine do the air guitar :)

2012

I had grand plans for this one. I had the idea for a single take, walking type video. I was going to be singing into the camera as I walked along and at each chorus more and more people would come into frame to dance along with me. I even had a friend of mine help choreograph some moves. 

This was also the year I got my 5D MK III and some very nice L glass, did I mention I am a bit of a gear head?:)

I also got a stabiliser, which is not nearly as easy to use as I had hoped it would be. It took four of us and help from a friend who studied engineering to get it even slightly balanced. A very good lesson to learn - don't show up to a shoot with a new toy you want to try out! Make sure you've tested everything you can before you shoot. Lucky for me on this occasion I was the client.

Unfortunately, I'd put on quite a lot of weight since we moved to Melbourne. I got home after the first day of shooting and, once I looked at the rushes, I realised I needed another idea. I just didn’t like the way I jiggled in the video.

So my dilemma was, how can I be in the video without being in the video? I came up with the idea of sticking iPads onto sticks and superimposing my face onto them. I asked Mandy’s family and some friends to act as body doubles, and this video is the end result.

There was a lot of experimenting to get this right. Intially I tried playing my face on the iPads but that was never going to work as the screens were not bright enough and the glare was terrible. Then I tried showing just green or white screens with black dots on them for tracking software to track. That didn’t work either.

In the end, I went with a pretty low-tech option and stuck white paper with tracking marks on the screens. This was the best solution but not perfect. Whilst tracking, motion would lose the track points any time they even remotely went out of focus so almost half of this video was done frame-by-frame and using keyframes.

It was every night for a week sitting across from Mandy on the couch, sometimes swearing at my laptop. When she asked what was wrong, I told her it was just excel stuff for work… the trusting fool :)

2011

This one was a challenge. We had just moved to Australia and I had only recently started my job at Apple. I was really struggling to find the time to get away from Mandy to do the video. Luckily, I had a conference up in Sydney for the new job and so I roped some new workmates into being camera ops and lighting dudes. 

The whole thing is lit either by available light or my mate Tom standing as close as he could, pointing my iPad at me with a white screen on as bright as it can go. Amazing what can be done when you’re desperate :)

2010

This was a big year, Mandy’s 30th. As a build-up, I created 30 notes on little red cards, each one giving another reason why I loved Mandy. I would hide one in the apartment everyday for 30 days leading up to her birthday.

Mandy had a work conference over the weekend so would be out of the house Saturday and Sunday. The idea just came to me on the Saturday morning. So I called Charlotte, who had done the video the year before, and asked her if she could help with the shoot on the Sunday. I spent Saturday running round getting the wigs and moustaches and outfits and testing some things like the iPad as a ukulele. 

It almost all fell apart when Mandy decided on Sunday morning that she didn't feel like going to day two ofthe conference. I kept cool and convinced her that it would be worthwhile and maybe day two would be better. Major panic one overcome!

Charlotte is also a drummer so had the kit at home, but we didn't have the time to take it on location and so filmed the drummer at her place with a green screen. You can see this easily in the video in the reflection in the drummer's glasses! 

The rest of huge shoot was on the roof of my work's parking building. We shot each character about four times to get wide, medium and close-up shots. The fourth shot involved Charlotte just moving around me and experimenting. 

Getting the positioning was actually really easy as we just put down duct tape on the ground to create markers. 

Charlotte did an amazing job of editing and putting the whole thing together.

2009

This was the first one we did. The original plan was to sing the song myself. I have an ok singing voice and thought it would be a cool idea. My mate Chris came over and, after trying for a few hours, we realised that whilst I may have an OK singing voice, I don’t have range or training. We worked out that it was probably easier if I just lip-synced, which led to the concept for this video. 

The shoot was done over a single day with my brother, his then-girlfriend, and my friend Charlotte Wanhill. Charlotte is a fantastic camera operator and wicked good editor. She cut the whole thing and I think she did an amazing job.

It was easy to do it in secret as at that time I was living in Auckland, New Zealand, and Mandy was living in Toronto, not New Zealand. I was going to be in San Francisco for WWDC for her birthday and since San Francisco is kinda in-between Auckland and Toronto, Mandy came out to meet me there.