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Shooting and Editing videos in GNU/Linux

How to make a short film using only open source tools

Photo by Rami

This year, in summer, I decided to apply for the prestigious Shuttleworth Fellowship program.

The Fellowship program is incredible!!! Why? Because all the fellows are amazing and their projects and ideas are mind blowing :-) Just to give you an idea, here is a short list of their Alumni:

Amazing right!? As you can see, the level is pretty high!!! If you additionally take a look to the current fellows then you can start to tremble.

Fellowship Application

Applying for the fellowship has two steps: * the regular paperwork, plus * a short video pitching why they should fund you and your idea that would change the world.

Pitching a project or idea is always hard. Really hard.

You need to work on it as much as possible, trying to express as clear as possible what do you want to achieve if they fund you.

For the written proposal, a good colleague and friend helped me to shape the document. However for the video I was alone!

Before moving forward I have to say that I own a good DSLR camera. It is not a professional one, those are really expensive, but a modest one that allows me to record video in high quality without too many problems.

As you can see, the gear was not the problem. The problem was that I’ve never filmed a short-movie in my life.

Learning how to shoot a video

OK, so I do not know how to shot a video, and I only have 2 weeks to write the application, shoot the video, edit it, and send everything to the program. Did I hear the word: stress? :-)

Well, as I didn’t have any idea about how to shoot a video with my DSLR camera I decided to learn about it. I love films, art, etc. so I usually visit the video website Vimeo. Vimeo is like the playground for artists, where they show their creations. Just to give you an idea how creative are the users, check this video:

Obviously, I would love to create something like that, but I’ve to be realistic. First I didn’t know how to shoot properly a video, second you need to be very creative to build something similar to the previous movie, and third I only had two weeks. Additionally, I only had used a very simple video editor in my life: OpenShot. Hence, I just wanted to learn the very basics principles, and apply them for my video application.

Luckily, the Vimeo crew have created the School of Video with a specific set of lessons just for DSLR Cameras.

The DSLR lessons are a must if you want to shoot with your reflex camera. I watched all of them while I had my camera with me, configuring it properly, and experimenting a bit with it. If you can, watch all videos, they are very helpful and you will learn a lot.

Once I had the proper configuration for the camera, I had to actually shoot the video. But before going crazy and shooting the video I decided to do a bit of research again. I basically expended one afternoon browsing Vimeo and Youtube looking for other video applications for the Shuttleworth program to see what other people have done.

In general all the videos were shot with one cut, with the applicant in front of it pitching his/her project, using almost all the time available (5 minutes).

While I was watching them I knew that I had to do something different, if I wanted to get the attention of the Shuttleworth judges. Hence, I decided to create several cuts and reduce the video length as much as possible. Why? Because I didn’t want to get them bored :-)

Now that I knew the initial structure, it was time to learn a bit more about how to tell a story with a film.

The Art of Storytelling

Again, I went back to the school of video for more resources and I found this amazing video:

The video explains perfectly well how your script has to look like. Basically you need to answer the following questions or points:

  • People: Who is in the story? This one was easy to answer: me!
  • Place: Where does the story take place? Easy: Madrid, Spain.
  • Plot: What is the conflict and the journey? This is the tough one! Basically pitching my project.
  • Purpose: Why should anyone care about this? Another complicated one. Here I explained why I’m pitching my project and why is important.

After watching the video I started to write down my script answering those questions. The process helped me a lot to focus on what I wanted to tell, and more importantly: how I wanted to tell it.

My pitch is about Citizen Science: citizens doing science themselves with simple tools that I am building.

Citizens are a key aspect of my pitch, so I wanted to give them a lot of relevance and I decided that I needed to film citizens, but where?

Well, the question Place gave me the answer. As I am based in Madrid, I decided to present the place, Madrid, filming in the most popular places: Sol, Callao and Plaza Mayor.

As I was going to shoot in the streets, I needed to add also a sound track according to the city style, so I browsed several open licensed tracks from Hip-Hop that could fit with the video. As you can see, I was giving body to the video thanks to answering the four P’s.

Then I wrote plot. I expend a lot of time refining it until I was happy with it. I recorded myself several times repeating the text, just to get used to what I wanted to say, to check the rhythm, etc. This process helped me to rephrase several times parts of the script and to make it the way I wanted. It may sound silly, but I recommend you to film yourself to relax, learn your script, look natural, etc.

Finally, my wife and I went to the final place where she was going to film me. But when we were preparing I realized that we had a problem: the quality of sound as we were going to shoot in a public space.

The previous cuts were fine, because the sound of the camera were going to be overwritten by the sound track. However, in this new cuts I needed to sound as clear as possible. Therefore, how can I do it without a professional camera? The solution: back to Vimeo and Google to do some research about it.

Recording clear sound

In general people recommend you to use a separated voice recorder, so you can sync the audio later in the video editing tool. I didn’t want to buy a recorder just for this video, but it looked like it was the only feasible solution. While I was checking prices, I had an idea: what if I used my own smartphone with its headphones and integrated mic? It sounded crazy, but it was worthy to give it a try.

I set it up: the phone in my pocket, the headphones inside my polo using one of the buttons to lock the mic properly and hide it from the view of the camera. Then, I pressed the record button, say the standard “hello, hello, one, two three” and a new audio clip was saved. It worked like a charm, and the cost of it was 0 EUR :-)

A cheap prompter

With everything more or less solved, it was time to create a prompter. The solution: a spiral notebook. Each page was the text I’ve to say when recording a cut, so it was really easy for me to read it. Tips: use capital letters, so you can read it clearly, and adjust the length of the sentence in a way that it fits the rhythm that you want to give to your pitch. Try it several times before going to shoot, until you are really comfortable with the result.

We filmed every cut several times, from different angles, and in different places. This work flow allowed me to choose between different videos and try different ideas when editing it. With all the materials saved in my hard disk, it was time to start the video editing, or how I called it: the panicking area.

Editing the video (aka panicking mode on!)

I am a big fan and user of open source software. I release all my photos under an open license and all the code I develop is also open source. In other words, I am a true believer in open source, so I wanted to create the full video using only open source editing tools. In this case OpenShot.

OpenShot is very handy. You can separate several tracks in your movie, add vectorial tittles (that you can edit with Inkscape), sound clips, make transitions, etc. It looks amazing, right? Well,I guess that for small projects is not a problem, but for me it was a really frustrating time because every time I saved the project or changed something, the application crashed.

The good thing though, was that even tough it crashed almost all the time, the progress was always saved and I never lost any information.

The first thing I worked on were the titles. I used Inkscape to create them, and again, in order to give the same look and feel to the whole video, I searched for a nice font and a background to overlay the text. As the main theme for the video is the city, I decided to use some graffiti droplets as the background for the text, keeping a clean and modern font.

The next step was to sync the audio files with the videos. To my surprise I discovered that OpenShot doesn’t have that feature, so I started to freak out. Literally. Two breaths later, I did some Googling and fortunately I found another open source video editor that actually can do the sync “automatically”: PiTiVi.

I installed the software, and I tried out. The first time it worked, so I was really happy (later I discovered that for some video and audio clips, it never synchronized the audio tracks; as I filmed several times the same cut, I’d always a pair of clips that worked). Thus, my current work flow was the following:

  • Import video and sound clip in PiTiVi,
  • Sync the sound in both items,
  • Export the final video with the synchronized audio,
  • Import the video in OpenShot to do the final editing.

Did you say: painful? Yes, really painful. Add also that every time I changed something in OpenShot it crashed, so you can have an idea how painful it was. However, I wanted to create the video using only open software tools so I forced myself, and the result was this:

After all, the experience was really beautiful because I learned a lot. Some people would say that open source tools sucks (I do not share that feeling at all), but actually, thanks to that I’ve learned a lot, due to all the research I did.

When I finished my video, I checked the OpenShot web site to see if there is a new version that fixes all the problems I had, and luckily it seems like a new version is in the oven. Thus, in the future it should be much easier to do it in GNU/Linux.

Final note: I want to try the popular Lightworks and see how good it is, but as usual, I do not have enough time .