Now that the trailer for Stömol is done, I can get down to the serious business of procrastinating over doing the audio for the movie. Since I promised a series of ‘how to’ blog posts back in September, I’m going to start with that.
I’ll begin with the basic tools. To anyone who’s dabbled with machinima in Second Life, the following will likely be nothing new. The problem with this sort of stuff, however, is that people rarely take the time to write it all down because they assume everyone knows it. It’s a human weakness that we tend to forget that we didn’t once know the stuff that we know now, as evidenced by the SL residents who still seem to think that all the paraphernalia associated with mesh bodies and ‘appliers’ is easy (whilst still expressing astonishment that more people don’t take up SL). Luckily, one of my super-powers is remembering what it feels like to know nothing.
One more thing: whilst many aspects of the upcoming tutorial posts will apply regardless of the computer you’re using, I am a PC user and so there will be some elements (eg, key combinations) which will apply only to that machine. Sorry, Mac users.
Let’s get to it.
What viewer you use to interact with SL has an impact on certain aspects of film-making. I use Firestorm, a third party viewer which has a number of features that come in handy when creating machinima. There are of course other viewers you can use. I understand that Black Dragon, for example, offers a number of pretty cool features. I stuck with Firestorm for Stömol because I had been using it to take photographs for years and so felt very comfortable with it.
If you’re an official viewer user, there’s nothing stopping you from using that for machinima, but you will be missing a few helpful elements. At the top of the list of handy features for me that comes with Firestorm is the ability to derender objects you don’t want in your scene. If you intend to create your own sets for your machinima then this won’t be a requirement for you since you’ll only place objects you want there and anything which gets in the way of your camera view can just be moved. Since Stömol was filmed across a number of different locations in SL, however, it was very frequently the case that I wanted to get rid of one or two items (sometimes considerably more than that) so the derender feature became invaluable. To derender an object in Firestorm, right click it, click on ‘more’ in the pie menu, click on ‘more’ again, then click ‘derender’ and finally click on ‘temporary’ if you don’t mind the object reappearing next time you visit the sim or ‘blacklist’ if you want that item gone from your view permanently. You can also derender avatars.
I’ll discuss in a future post the various options I use in Firestorm whilst filming. Before I move on, however – and so you can actually get on with doing some filming – I will share one piece of very important information it took me an age to find out, which is how to hide the user interface when you film. Believe it or not, for every single machinima I made prior to Stömol I had no idea there was even an option for this, and spent ages before every shoot getting rid of any HUDs I didn’t need or pushing them in edit mode to the very edge of my screen – and then, in the edit, I had to crop my images so that all the bits that did still show were removed. It’s actually extremely simple:
To remove main viewer interface (IM windows and icons, chat text, inventory window, map, etc) press Ctrl + Alt + F1.
To remove inworld interface elements (HUDs) press Shift + Alt + H.
One more quick tip. Frame rates (the number of frames per second – the generally accepted minimum for filming is 24, though it’s possible to go a bit lower) get slashed horrendously in busy sims, making it almost impossible to film a shot when there are lots of people around. Firestorm offers a very simple off switch for people you don’t know, to save you the bother of derendering each of them individually. To derender all avatars except people on your friends list, click on the ‘World’ menu then select ‘Show friends only’ (in the current version of FS, it’s right at the bottom of that menu). Don’t forget to untick that option once you’re done filming – vanished folk will then reappear when you teleport out of the sim and back into it.
Video capture software
The next thing you’ll need is a program for your computer to capture video from SL. The software I use for this is Fraps, an app optimised for capturing the output of video games. Fraps is incredibly easy to use – once it’s open, you just minimise the Fraps window and go back to SL, then press the key you’ve defined as the record start/stop button (in my case, F9 – which I think is the default option) to start recording your clip, and again to finish. Fraps will then save each clip in a folder of your choosing. Simple. It also provides a handy frame rate indicator in the corner of your screen which changes from yellow to red when you’re recording.
You can download a free version of Fraps which will place a limit of 30 seconds on your record time (none of the clips I created for Stömol ever exceeded that time) and place a small watermark in the top-centre of the screen (which is easily cropped out in the edit). An unrestricted version will cost you $37.
Fraps doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2013, and the download only officially supports Windows versions up to Windows 7. It works just fine on my Windows 10 setup, however.
Time to talk about hardware. If you’ve been in SL for a while, you won’t need me to tell you that the faster the PC you have the better when it comes to the visuals of SL. If you’re a photographer, you’ll know that you can temporarily dip into ultra graphics mode once you have a picture framed so long as you don’t try to move around too much. If you want to film in ultra, however, there’s no getting around the need for speed. I use a Lenovo i7 PC with a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card (which was a high-end graphics card when I bought it) and I still have problems getting smooth pans. There are a few tricks you can use to get around that (the most notable being don’t do too much panning – it’s way over-used in machinima anyway), but once you start dabbling with filming you’re probably going to start lusting after a machine that will take all the bother out of this for you.
Of course, frame rates don’t only depend on the speed of your machine. As mentioned above, the number of people in a sim will also impact on this (hence the tip above on removing non-friends). Your internet connection speed is also an important factor – once again, the faster your speed the better.
One more hardware point: video files captured by Fraps take up a lot of disk space. If you’re planning on making an occasional five to ten minute machinima then your current set-up might suffice: any longer than that, however, and you’re probably going to need to invest in an additional hard drive. Sorry about that.
Video editing software
Once you’ve created your clips, you’re going to need a video editing suite. There are loads of these available and many movie-makers will probably insist on Adobe Premiere Pro. I’m a cheapskate, however, and the monthly fee for that application would have pushed the cost of Stömol into hundreds of dollars considering the time I’ve spent on it so far. When I was only filming short videos, I used Windows Movie Maker for very basic editing (which is no longer part of Windows 10, but can still be downloaded for free). For Stömol, however, I needed something much more feature-packed and downloaded Lightworks. There’s a free version of Lightworks you can download; the main restriction aside from re-registering it weekly (which is basically just a weekly login that takes seconds) is that you can only create movies up to 720p (for 1080p HD or higher, you need to pay a monthly fee of £14.99). My SL movie looks fine in 720p – it’s not like I’m filming skin pores or anything – so I’m going to stick with that.
I won’t be going into many of the details of Lightworks in the coming blog posts (with a few exceptions, such as speed adjustments and the trick of reversing a clip) since there are many very helpful Lightworks tutorials available on YouTube that will do that job far more effectively than I can. I will mention one important thing, however. The clips created by Fraps don’t work properly when imported into Lightworks and often stutter or judder. To get around this, you need to transcode each clip into a format that Lightworks accepts more readily. Luckily, there is a free piece of simple software to do exactly this called Eyeframe.
Sound editing software
Finally, you’re probably going to need a sound editor for any sounds or voiceover for your video. In particular, Lightworks has a difficulty with MP3 files so any music you want to import for your video will need to be converted to the uncompressed wav file format first. All this, and much more, can be done in Audacity, a free, very powerful and very popular sound editor.
That’s it for now. In the next post, I’ll start looking at composition and some of the tricks that can be used in Firestorm to get the framing you’re after.