A step-by-step guide: SL animated GIFs

Hamlet Au suggested I put together a tutorial on creating animated GIFs in SL, which I thought was a great idea – especially since it’s easier now than ever. I recently discovered Gyazo, which is a quick and easy screen-capture-and-share tool that you can download for free from gyazo.com. Once installed, click on the Gyazo icon on your start menu and you instantly get a set of cross hairs that you can then click and drag over an area of screen content. As soon as you release the mouse, your default browser opens up the image you just captured in a web page and then it’s a simple mater of copying the URL and passing that on to whoever you want to share it with – tweet, email, text, IM, whatever.

But Gyazo also comes with a separate tool for creating animated GIFs. It’s exactly the same process, only this time you get a seven second countdown once you’ve defined your screen area, and anything going on within it during that time gets uploaded to a web page as an animation. The cost of this extreme ease-of-use is there’s not much you can change in terms of settings – seven seconds is your lot, for example, (though there’s nothing preventing you from stopping recording  before the timer’s up, so shorter animations are possible). Just like the static image version, you can copy the URL and send it to your friends and/or followers. You can also right click the image and download it to your PC for future uploading to twitter, web page, giphy.com or wherever you’d like to send it.

If that’s all you want to do then you need read on no further: everything you need to know for a basic GIF is contained in the two paragraphs above. I like my GIFs to feel a touch more cinematic, however, so I thought I’d show you how I personally use Gyazo plus a couple of other tools.

1. Compose your image. I happen to think the Rule of Thirds in photography is extremely important (I’ll be writing a blog post on this soon). If you don’t know what it is and taking photos in SL is important to you then find out now and your photography will likely take one of its biggest leaps forward. Roughly put, you need to imagine your picture divided into three columns and three rows, creating nine ‘cells’ and four points of intersection where the dividing lines cross. The rule of thirds requires you to try to arrange your picture according to those dividing lines and to place particularly interesting things on one of the intersections.

The location I’ve chosen for my GIF shoot is the wonderful Mont Saint Michel, a very old SL build which closed down a while ago and which I only just learned this week is back again. The image below shows the entire of my screen (remember, I will be selecting an area within this for Gyazo to record). I want the archway to be at my upper-right intersection, so I’ve found an angle that places it in that approximate area.

0-angle

I’ve also used some zoom to get me closer in to the street and the walls. In case you haven’t already discovered it (it actually took me years to find this out, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t) using Ctrl and 0 (zero) zooms you in on a picture in the same way that a zoom lens on a camera would, whilst using Ctrl and 8 zooms you back out (Ctrl and 9 returns you to normal). Some people think zoom means moving your mouse wheel forwards and back, but that isn’t the same at all – that’s just the equivalent of walking backwards and forwards with your camera. A proper lens zoom changes the relative proportions of scenery around the subject and creates a more dramatic feel.

2. Sort out your blur. Depth of field is another important SL photography tool that many people find challenging. Once you’ve activated it in your graphics settings, whatever you Alt-click on will be in focus with everything else out of focus. The degree to which everything else is blurred will depend upon a number of factors. First, the further away something is the more blurred it is. Second, using lens zoom will also increase the burring of background as you zoom in on your subject. Third, you can manually increase blur using the sliders on the Depth of Field settings window: moving the top slider all the way to the left will create a very narrow depth of field so that everything is really blurry other than the one thing you focused on. Moving the second slider to the right will also increase blur. Play with them. In the picture below, I’ve set my ‘in focus’ zone to be an area about halfway between where my camera is and where Huck is standing. I’m going to get him to walk towards the camera, starting off blurred and then moving into focus and then out of it again. This technique will add depth to the scene and make it feel more real.

1-focus

3. Sort out your lighting. The windlight at the Mont Saint Michel sim is already pretty good, but I prefer a slightly harsher light to create something more real looking. I’ve gone for good old ‘Avatar Opt’ and rotated the sun a little so I’ve got an interesting mixture of light and shade in my scene.

2-windlight

4. Fix your camera position (optional). If you’re going to record an animation taking place on a pose ball, you don’t need to bother with this step. I’m going to walk Huck towards and past the camera position, however, and doing this without fixing my camera will mean that the whole scene moves as my avatar moves. To fix my camera position, I’m using a tool called ‘Camera Assistant’ by Eve n Better. It currently costs L$10.

4-fix-screen_001

5. Don’t forget to turn off name tags. Because you’re using an external capture program, stuff like that will be recorded too. Make sure there’s nothing with any floating text in your view either, and if there is then derender it (right click > more > derender in Firestorm).

5-nametags_001

6. Practice your movement. This is likely to be the most infuriating part. Because my camera position is now fixed, I have to walk Huck around as though by remote control. This is doable when he’s walking away from me – I’m used to looking over his shoulder from behind – but maddening as all hell when he’s walking towards me, where pressing the left direction arrow sends him off to the right and vice versa. Be careful also if your avatar moves out of sight: getting him or her back into view is no easy task without unfixing your camera and finding them (and then having to go through the process of getting your angle and composition sorted out all over again). My way of doing this is to bring the map up on the screen and try to bring the dot that is Huck back to the yellow point that shows my camera position.

7. Define your area and record. You’ll see below that Huck is standing just to the left of the defined area. This is so that he can walk into a scene that starts off as initially empty. Since animated GIFs loop, I want the end of the sequence to look the same as the start.

But by leaving this bit of space for my avatar, I’ve messed up the composition a bit: the archway is not over the top-right intersection where I wanted it to be, but instead slightly to the right of that. It’s not a massive problem, but if I had more time I might be tempted to go back to the start and recompose the picture so that the archway is where I want it to be with enough space left over for Huck to wait in.

5a-select

8. Wait for Gyazo to process and upload the clip. Once done, your default browser will open up and show you the clip. You’ll find a button at the top of the page saying ‘GIF.’ Click it. This will open up a new tab with just the animated GIF of your scene and nothing else. Right click this image and click on ‘Save picture,’ then save the GIF to your PC.

6-convert

9. Upload your GIF to ezgif.com. Here we’re going to do a bit of post work. First of all, I’m going to crop my GIF. When I captured it, I wasn’t able to move my mouse pointer out of the top-left corner in time and I want to get rid of that detail. Cropping also allows me to select a standard 16:9 ratio, as indicated below.

9-crop

10. Change the speed. This is entirely optional, of course. My feeling is that walks in SL often look a little speeded up. Here, I choose to reduce my speed by about 25%, making Huck’s walk a little bit slower and – in my opinion – more realistic. Much more than this and you’ll start to lose smoothness of movement, however. If you want really slow, you will need to capture your initial clip using a different tool to Gyazo, such as Fraps, where you can record at a higher frame rate.

10-speed

11. Optimise the image. My GIF is coming in at about 3.5 MB, which isn’t actually all that bad. Since I’ll be hosting the image on my free WordPress site and I only get 3 Gb of space there, however, it’s in my interest to reduce that file size as much as possible. Ezgif.com provides you with a number of ways of doing this, though of course the more severe of these will impact on your image quality. I’m going to go for a very light touch.

11-optimise

And lo, I’ve reduced the filesize down to 2.3 Mb. I can live with that.

11a-optimised

And now you’re good to go! Download the image from ezgif.com and use it wherever you post images. Not Flickr, though. GIFs won’t work there.

Below is the finished animation. If I was starting over, I’d position the archway more to the left (as discussed earlier) and I would set a wider depth of field so that Huck is in focus for longer. I’d also move the camera closer to the ground so that Huck’s head moves towards the top of the image as he gets closer to the camera position. Still, we live and learn.

msm1-1-ed

I hope that was useful. Feel free to link to your SL GIFs in the comments below!

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2 comments

  1. Great tutorial and I am going to try this soon,I love your GIF’s!
    As for your number 5, the tags and all. When capturing Machinima I always use control+alt+F1 to get rid of the UI (including nametags) and shift+alt+H to hide HUD’s. (saves me ticking stuff off and on in preferences).

    Liked by 1 person

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