Character Duplication and VHS Tapes

College, experiments, production

For one scene in my latest film I decided to interview myself, on the subject of narcissism – just because I thought there was some ironic humour in doing so. And to add a little something to that interview, besides the voice clearly being the same voice asking and answering the questions, I decide to duplicate myself placing the audio recorder down for the interview. My idea was to kill two – or three – birds with one stone, by adding some depth to the joke by showing myself twice, to further sell the documentary feeling by having the recorder clearly placed in shot, and then to sell the effect by having the interviewee move the recorder once the interviewer placed it in the shot. I am particularly happy with how this effect turned out due to its subtlety, and how easy it was the achieve.

First, I’ll take you through the practice elements of creating the effect, then I’ll go through the simple compositing techniques I used, and finally I’ll explain how I did the VHS tape – which was pretty simple to do practically, but could also be done using VFX, if you don’t have access to a working tape recorder.

This is not necessarily the best way to create this effect, but it is an easy way to do on your own, and with little equipment – just a camera, and tripod, an audio recorder, and a video editor that supports masking, like Premiere Pro from Adobe.

Character Duplication – Practical Effects:
  1. Make sure the camera is on a tripod, as any movement will make compositing incredibly difficult.
  2. Record the version of the scene where the character places the recorder down, take as many takes as you like, but always leave the recorder exactly where it was placed while reviewing the take, as it’ll need to be in that position for the next version of the scene. You cannot use an earlier take, as the recorder will not be in exactly the right place. Making a mark on your location might allow you to duplicate the position of the record throughout the takes, but I found it easier to just do a final take and go with it.
  3. You’ll then want to, without moving the camera at all, record the next take of the scene. Have your actor acknowledge the previous version of themselves and then take the recorder and do as they wish with it. If you don’t want to character to move the recorder, this scene will be easier, as you won’t need to retake the first scene is you mess this up.
  4. Next, you’ll need to record the vocals for the questions. You could record the interview question later and then mix them to sound like they’re coming from behind the camera, but it’s easier to just move to where you’d imagine the interviewer would be standing, and – leaving the recorder where is was for the answers – record the question being asked. You might need to amplify the vocals from this section once in your editor, as the recorder wont usually pick up as well from the rear, but this will save a lot of audio editing, as the vocals will be positioned exactly where you want them, and will sound incredibly realistic straight out of the recorder.
Character Duplication – Visual Effects/Compositing:
  1. Bring all the footage into your compositor of choice, any program that support masking will do, so if you don’t have After Effects don’t worry, Premiere Pro will do, or even Hitfilm.
  2. Find the the best take of both version of the scene, remember each take will have a matching first and second section, in which the audio recorder will be in exactly the same position – though if you mark and match the record’s location exactly throughout takes, you’ll be able to mix and match versions to get the best of both takes.
  3. Place both clips on top of one in a new composition/sequence.
  4. Turn the opacity of the top layer down so you can see the layer underneath, then align the clips so the timing is exactly how you want it – obviously making sure the recorder has been placed by the interviewer before the interviewee tries to move it.
  5. Once the clips are aligned, go to your ‘effects controls’ panel and navigate to opacity, then click the pen tool icon, draw around the area of the scene where the action takes place, and feather the mask slightly to blend any slight changes in lighting.
  6. You’ll now need to navigate the the part of the clip when the recorder is placed down, and keyframe the position of the mask to follow the hand of the interviewer. this is so as the recorder is placed the interviewer’s version is showing, and as they take their hand away we leave the interviewee’s clip where the recorder is, allowing the interviewee to then be seen to move it.

This effect – minus the recorder – has been covered in many videos on YouTube, so if you are unsure about how to do any of the things mentioned here just look for character duplication on YouTube, is much easier to show the process rather than tell it, so this is mainly for those who roughly understand how the effect works, but are having trouble making it look real.

Creating the VHS tape was quite simple. All you need to do is burn a DVD version of the film, play the DVD through a TV that has a tape recorder attached, hit record and let it play – hey presto you have a VHS with the effect on. If you then want to record this back into the computer to get this old documentary look you’re going to want to mask around the screen – once you have your footage of the TV, of course – so you’re able to colour grade the TV separate from the rest of the scene, this way you can really make the screen pop out from the background.

If you can’t your hands of a VHS recorder, just record the screen with nothing on from a tripod to make compositing easier, then mask out that part of the video, add your effect underneath, add Red Giant’s VHS effect (from Red Giant Universe), duplicate the layer with the effect, scale it up a little, add a lot of blur to the layer – so you only have a vague sense of the colours of the scene – mask that so it only applies to the area immediately around the TV screen then tune the opacity to however looks right to you, to create the illusion of light spilling from the TV – you can also change the blending mode to ‘soft light’ in the opacity controls, which will help to sell the effect. If you can get the effect onto the TV, but don’t have a tape to record it onto, you could just record that on a tripod, then record another version in which a tape is pushed in, then cut from one to the other once the tape goes in and would be playing. You could also mask the TV screen and add Red Giant’s VHS tape effect, to make it look a little dirtier.

To learn more about character duplication check out this video from Film Riot.

Hopefully this was helpful, I’ll be back soon.

Recording the Wind

College, experiments

Recording the wind is often a boring task, but I wanted to create something a bit different with my recordings. Using pipes of different length to record through, I could use the natural acoustic qualities of the pipes to manipulate the wind into something a little more musical, each pipe creating a different note, I can mix and match the notes to create the ideal sound for the wind in my piece – I can also use pitch shifters to tune the sounds to one another. I used four pipes: one metal, one cardboard, and two PVC pipes of different lengths. I spend about an hour recording sound in the college courtyard. I’ve included a little recording that includes some talking and some of the pipe sounds.

Recording and Processing Vocals

College, experiments, planning, research

Due to my love of writing poetry – I would say ‘songs’, but I’m no singer – I decided to experiment with writing and recording some words inspired by The Willows. This (below) is what I came up with after about a day and a half.

Disregarding the rowing sounds at the end, and the flute – though it’s barely recognisable – this track is made up of six voice recordings. The recordings are each in a different location within my bedroom; they were recorded with a pair of Rode M5s, in a cross pattern (see sketch below), into a Zoom H4N.

Vocals setup one (full page)

I decided to record the vocals using several positions – there were eight recorded – for three reasons: one, I wanted to take advantage of the change in vocal quality from whispering near to the microphone and talking from a distance; two, I wanted to use the different acoustic qualities of the microphone positions to create a sense of space; three, I wanted to be able to analyse and compare these recordings in order to better understand the way in which source position effects a recording, so I may imitate 3D space more accurately in my finished piece.

Once I had my recordings I brought them into Adobe Audition, captured a noise print, then applied a batch noise reduction to all the files – just a very light reduction of the self produced noise from the Zoom.

Once denoised I brought them all into Ableton Live (below). Each voice was given a track, then I used an EQ to accentuate the acoustic qualities of each recording positionbringing up the low vocal frequencies in the close recording to accentuate the proximity effect, etc. Then each voice was given a position, the left and right recordings were pretty straightforward. Once this was done I warped each sound slightly, and cut pieces of silence between lines, until I found a synchronisation I liked – having the whisper first and the further recordings happen a little later, all in the hope of accentuating space.

ableton vocals one

Once a simple mix was established I then worked on each sound individually, I’ll take you through the process on the closest voice – the whisper – as that’s the sound with the most work done to it.

Firstly, this voice was positioned in the left of the stereo mix, I felt it needed to be predominately coming from one side to sound like an external voice, as opposed to a voice in your head. I also wanted to keep the voice sounding as though it was moving slightly closer; to do this I had the sound move from the left to the right, very subtly, and then resetting between lines. Secondly, I needed to EQ the voice with the movement I wanted it to make. As you can hear at the end of this test, the voice moves slightly overhead and from the left to the right. To achieve the attitudinal movement I used an EQ to bring out some of the higher tones as it moved from left to right, I also used a volume control to drop the level of the sound to give a sense of distance between the listener and the sound as it moved overhead.

As you can see, not a lot was done to each voice – no reverb or chorusing effects – but the method of recording in several positions allowed me to create an interesting effect, that could be easily manipulated just using the volume and panning of each track.

Practising Sound Morphing in Ableton Live

College, experiments, sketch

So, having a lot of ideas about what I wanted my piece to say, I took to learning how to say thing with this new medium I’ve become interested in – sonic art, particularly electroacoustic music. My first experiments were in Adobe Audition, however I had to abandon that piece of software as automating the individual parameters within different effects is incredibly time consuming – it’s clearly not designed for a non-destructive automation workflow. I’ve been getting to grips with Ableton Live for the last few days, and it’s incredible intuitive. In this post I will be discussing my process using this software to transform sounds I obtained from Freesound into the piece you can hear below.

This (above) was my forth attempt at building The River (see other post on The Willows and my FMP). In this iteration I cause it to morph into the sounds of a road towards the end. I am quite happy with the result, though I feel the white water stage isn’t present for long enough and doesn’t properly assert itself as a stage in the lifetime of the river. This isn’t the exact transformation the river will take over the course of my finished piece – nor are the sounds necessarily the ones I will be using – but it was a chance to practice.

The process – step by step, sound by sound
  • The first sound you can hear is the sound of a drop of water falling onto a metal pan. My idea for this was to start closer to a footsteps within a large space – though I didn’t totally achieve this, and should’ve probably used that sound as well as the drip if I wanted that sound event to be clearer – then move this sound closer to an legible dripping. The first thing I did was to loop a single drip, as I thought the footsteps would be more uniform than normal dripping. I attempted to allude to the footsteps by panning the dripping left to right with each drip, representing how each foot would be a different side – although one is never between footsteps as to hear them like that, but I wanted use that motion as I enjoyed the idea of an nearly-impossible movement being believable, something I enjoy about sound. I also used an eight band equalizer to take out the highest frequencies and boost to lowest tones, then I automated these tones back into the sound as we get closer to the legible dripping. I also used a reverb on this sound, with a long delay to create a large space for the ‘footsteps’ and automated it out towards the end to place the drips in a smaller space – this also had a low-cut filter applied, in an attempt to isolate the mid-tones a little more to create a more impactful sound.
  • There is also a recording of an electric guitar that I added some reverb to and then faded the track in after the guitar attack just so we had the sound resonate. This recording was on analogue cassette tape – a lo-fi set up – and I just used and equalizer  to bring out a little bit of the hiss in the upper mid-tones. This hiss, and the whole sound, builds as the dripping does, in an attempt become symbolise the wind building as we go from an indoor space – with the high levels of reverb – and the location of the river.
  • The next sound is dripping into a body of water. This time I looped seven drips, so it was already less uniform than the dripping that started as footsteps – or my allusion to footsteps. I synced these drips with the first set of drips, then faded them in. I started with a little reverb on these to match the reverb on the first drips, but it fades to a dryer mix quite quickly. Then I added a simple delay that just fades from in, after the dripping has been established. The delay was set to two different time delays on the left and right channel, and slowly drift further out of sync, filling the stereo image. This sound also had an equalizer add some bass tones in the beginning, to match the first sound more closely, then fades them out as the dripping becomes more intense.
  • The next sounds were two separate recordings of the same river, I simple panned one hard left and the other hard right, just to fill that stereo space. I’m not sure how it worked really, but I do like the sound I ended up with, and I did notice that when listening through loudspeakers I no longer experience the phenomenon of locating all the sound to the closest speaker – my mind seemed to locate the river as two separate sounds, which gave me a fuller experience when moving within my listening space (between two speakers) – which I will bare in mind when creating omnipresent sounds for playing through stereo speakers. These sounds simply fade in, however they were equalized to match more closely to the first sounds, and that equalization fade back to their natural sound over time. The same goes for a small amount of reverb. These sounds stay present until the car sounds are heard, when they are faded out quickly.
  • This next sound is a fast flowing river – a simple sound that I looped about twenty seconds of. This sound was, again, equalized to match the other sounds then faded in – then, of course, allowed to drift back to its natural tone. This equalization mainly tackled the high frequencies and the low frequencies, leaving the mid-tones intact. Once the faster river was established I brought in more of the bass tones and dropped some of the higher frequencies, alluding to its gaining mass. This sound fades in slowly, then even more gradually increases in volume until the end, which is when it is panned right with the stereo recording of the car and increases in volume drastically before fading to nothing as the car takes the foreground.
  • The final sound is a stereo recording of sound cars on a fast moving road. All I did for this recording was to fade it in at the peak of the previous sound, and panned it from slightly left to centre as the first car came in – just accentuating that movement a little. I also used an equalizer to remove some of the highest frequencies to take attention away from the engine sounds and rely more on the movement, this was just to help the crossfade sound more natural.

ableton river one test

‘The Willows’: Key Event Breakdown

College, experiments, planning, research

As mentioned in my blog post (‘eight’), this is a breakdown of the key events in ‘The Willows’, with specific attention paid to the descriptions of sounds within the narrative. This breakdown is based on emotional changes, physical occurrences, and descriptive changes in the narration.

Also available as a Google document here.

Part I

  • The Danube Builds in intensity; from a mild trickling stream to a boisterous and humorous river, then a dark, deep flowing mass.
  • The flood waters rise and the men begin fighting the current.
  • They are faced with a choice of three channels, though some may only be sailable during the floods and may leave them high and dry to starve once the floods subside.
  • The men attempt to land their boat, fighting the current they begin to fear the power of the river. When they land, they recover and laugh off the affair.
  • The narrator explores the island; he finds it to be less than an acre. He goes from end to end of the island, finding downstream is a ‘crimson flood’ and upstream is a ‘sliding hill with white foam’. He gets close to the willows for the first time.
  • The disquietude sets in, they feel as though they are not welcome.
  • Pitching the tent in violent wind.
  • Collecting firewood by the shoreline the men spot what they believe is a body floating down the river. After a moment, their sensible selves realise it must be an otter, and their horror subsides and is replaced by laughter.
  • They are recalled to the river again and see a man standing in a boat crossing himself, he is shouting some warning furiously at the man, but his voice is carried away in the wind.
  • Mist is beginning to fill the air.
  • The Swede tries to reassure the narrator that the man was just frightened by them and didn’t mean anything, but the Swede is unconvincing.
  • They lay by the fire, talking of their adventure together and listening to the sounds of the night. ‘Curious sounds accompanied [the wind] … like the explosion of heavy guns … [that] fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power.’ However, they are comfortable and safe; their focus is on the past events and they avoid the present.
  • The narrator goes to collect firewood alone and find himself struck first by the silence and then by the voices of the willows ‘chattering’ amongst themselves. They crowd around the men holding their ‘silver spears’ ready to attack.
  • The willows seem to be creeping nearer, though they are almost certainly not.
  • ‘The melancholy shrill cry of a night bird sound[s] overhead’ and the narrator nearly loses his balance as the piece of bank he is standing upon topples into the river with a splash – he steps back just in time.

Part II

  • The Swede arrives, but his approach was covered by the elements and he is a sudden appearance to the narrator.
  • ‘Lucky if we get away without disaster!’ says the Swede.
  • They return to the camp, make sure all is in order, extinguish the fire then turn in. The tent is safe. Sleep takes over the narrator.
  • The narrator awakes and looks out of the tent, the Swede still sleeps. The narrator sees shapes he believes are somewhat monstrous, but is unsure.
  • The narrator leaves the tent to look closer and the sounds of the river and the wind burst upon him suddenly.
  • The figure disappears suddenly, after the narrator spend some time consider their reality – grounded by the fact he knows his senses must be working, as he can hear the wind and the river so clearly. Once the images are gone, and the narrator’s awe subsides, he is filled with cold fear.
  • The narrator calculates escape and is filled with terror.
  • The narrator returns to the tent, closes it to block out the willows, then buries his head in the blankets to block out the ‘terrifying’ wind.
  • The narrator drifts to sleep but is woken by a multitude of patterings outside the tent, and a pressure on the walls of the tent – he feels cold, though the air is warm, and shivers.
  • A shadow of a figure rushes past the narrator in this twilight morning and he almost loses his balance (the figure comes from in front and passes by his side, but almost through him). The narrator returns to the tent to sleep.
  • The Swede mentions ‘the gods are here’ and his manner is somewhat frightened though this is not mentioned by the pair.
  • They find that the paddle is missing, and the Swede mentions the tear in the bottom of the canoe; then they find the other paddle is damaged.
  • The narrator makes countless explanations for the damage to the boat and the paddle, but the Swede and his deeper self are both unconvinced.
  • The narrator has a moment of suspicious concerning the events and the Swede, but he quickly realises his fears are preposterous.
  • They begin melting the pitch to repair the canoe.

Part III

  • The Swede brings up the otter, doubting its innocence, but if rebuffed by the narrator. Tension is building between them, and the Swede is almost angry when a mention of the man in the boat is similarly rebuffed.
  • The wind, ‘for the first time in three days’ begins to drop, and with it the roaring lowers.
  • The sun sets and the ‘cheerfulness’ of the place is lost, and all becomes more sinister once more.
  • The narrator prepares a hearty stew for the evening. The pot bubbles. Then the Swede calls the narrator from the bank of the river, to ‘come and listen’.
  • They hear a deep note, like a distant gong. It happens at regular intervals, but it’s not a distant steamer, nor a bell, they know that much.
  • The narrator dashing back to the bubbling stew, mid-conversation with the Swede – half for fear of the stew, half to avoid further talk of the frightful sounds of the island.
  • The narrator asks the Swede too to get the bread for the stew. From the tree where there bag of supplies was hanging, the Swede laughs an unnatural but not forced laugh, after he empties the contents of the bag on the ground sheet but finds no loaf of bread.
  • The odd note, the gong, slowly becomes a ringing as the men wash up and prepare for the night; they smoke in ‘comparative silence’.
  • The fire begins to die, and the stock of wood runs low, but neither of the men replenish it and darkness closes in. The hum is in the air and the willows are shivering, but there is a deep silence nonetheless.
  • The narrator finally breaks, it’s all too much, he tells the Swede of all his worries and exclaims ‘If the other shore was different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!’ The Swede offers little hope, but says ‘Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us.’
  • The Swede goes on to say, ‘we must keep our minds quiet – it’s our minds they can feel’; the men now know they are being searched for and are beginning to consider ways in which they can hide themselves.
  • They know they have camping in the region where the veil has grown thin and ‘their world’ touches ours.

Part IV

  • The humming comes extremely low and stops the narrator mid-sentence.
  • The swede reveals he also heard the ‘countless footsteps’ – the patterings from the night before.
  • The narrator chances to look as his shoe and is – luckily – recalled, in memory, to the London shop at which he purchased them. This momentarily lifts the fear of this supernatural world, by the practically and mundanity of this past experience. He burst upon the Swede with accusations of superstition but is stopped by the humming overhead and leaves this comfortable mindset and returns to their predicament.
  • The Swede, now in pure terror, suggests leaving now, in the pitch dark, but the narrator sees sense.
  • They go to collect wood.
  • The Swede clutches the narrator upon noticing figures crowding around the dim glow of their fire, then he exclaims his fear as he sees them coming towards the men.
  • They men fall together and the Swede clutches the narrator in such a way to cause him acute agony.
  • After an uncertain amount of time the men regain composure and consciousness. The humming has stopped. The Swede explains the acute pain saved the narrator, and the Swede himself says he fell unconscious – removing his mind from their grasp.
  • ‘A wave of hysterical laughter seized [the narrator] once again, and this time spread to [the Swede] too’.
  • They return to the camp, stoke the fire, and see the tent has fallen down. They pitch the tent, but find themselves tripping in deep sand funnels.
  • They collect all their belongings as close as possible and go to bed fully clothed. The Swede is restless at first, but he sleeps, which encourages the narrator to follow suit.
  • The narrator is woken by a difficulty breathing, then he hears the pattering and notices the Swede is gone; the humming is audible once more – only far more intense, like ‘a swarm of … bees’ – and he leaves the tent ‘mad[ly]’ to find the Swede.
  • The narrator shouts for the Swede, running around the island frantically. But the willows and the humming smother and muffle the narrator’s voice.
  • The narrator finds the Swede with one foot in the river, about to take the plunge. The narrator drags the Swede back to the tent and hold him down until his trace is over and the pattering and humming subsides.
  • Everything has stopped, and the Swede remarks upon this and his feeling of safety. He didn’t remember his suicide attempt upon waking, but does when he bathes in the cold water.
  • They find a body washed up on the shore, tangle amongst the willows, it is evidently the ‘sacrifice’ that save the men; the Swede insists they give this man – a peasant – a ‘decent burial’.
  • Before the Swede can get to the body the ghastly humming begins again and the body is stolen from him by a torrent of water. They see the man’s chest is mark with the same funnel they saw in the sand, and the humming diminishes and leaves with the body.
  • The body turns ‘over and over on the waves like an otter’ before disappearing for good.