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.