Huck’s guide to making machinima in Second Life part three: camera movement

In the previous part of this series, I looked at how to frame shots whether the camera adopts a static position, either relative to the scenery (so the subject might move but the scene remains still) or to the subject (so the camera moves to follow the subject). In this part, I’ll take a look at shots where the camera moves independently of the subject.

A word before we embark on this. In my view, camera movement is much over-used in Second Life machinima. All too often, we see shot after shot after shot of it: zooms, circular pans and rising crane shots, each following the other in a dizzying array of scenes that are usually intended to show off a location but all too often end up breaking the sense of immersion needed to actually do that. If you look at great movies, you’ll see that moving camera shots are used quite sparingly by comparison, so that when they are used they add a dynamic that makes the shot stand out.

What do we have to blame for this state of affairs? Probably the 3Dconnexion Space Navigator – a fine piece of tech, for sure, but one which could perhaps do with being used by its owners a little less frequently when they’re filming in SL. I suspect that the preponderance of drone footage in modern TV and YouTube videos might have something to do with it too. I don’t intend to make this a tutorial on film technique – I’m in no way qualified to do so (and there are many people who are qualified to do so who offer plenty of advice on the internet) – but I will just highlight for a moment how older films tended to use long static shots far more often than tends to be the case today. The clip below from Manhattan is one of my favourite examples of this: for nearly two whole minutes the camera doesn’t budge an inch, giving the viewer a sense of fixed location within the apartment depicted. It makes the space more real and enables you to explore it as a setting far more than if the camera point was jumping about and moving all the time.

I do actually own a Space Navigator – I’ve had it for years, in fact – but I didn’t use it for a single shot in Stömol, for the principle reason that it doesn’t seem to work any more with Firestorm viewer. I’m not sure why this is – none of my research online has so far uncovered a solution that works – but the best that I can get out of it in SL is an occasional jerky crane rise. So it’s now a paperweight sitting on my desk – and a rather expensive one, at that.

[Update 22 Feb 2020: Following advice from Oema in the comments section, I uninstalled the Navigator drivers, rebooted and went back into Firestorm…. and now the navigator works. That’s right, I uninstalled them. Go figure.]

That’s not to say I didn’t use any moving camera shots in Stömol, however: in fact, I used quite a few – albeit spaced out between plenty of static shots. Fortunately for us, you don’t actually need a Space Navigator at all for moving camera shots in Firestorm. You can just use your regular mouse.

To get a horizontal pan that follows a moving subject, you don’t actually have to use your mouse at all. We pretty much covered this in part 2; all we need to do is follow the steps laid out there for the shot which followed me walking from the front, but position our camera from the side instead, ie:

  1. position your avatar so it is facing in the right direction (ie, down the street);
  2. cam around your avatar to face it from the side (make sure you alt-click on it in otherwise the camera won’t follow it when you start moving);
  3. apply whatever zoom you want and position your camera to get the composition just how you want it (using Shift + Ctrl + Alt plus the arrow keys to move the camera view up/down/left/right and Ctrl + Alt plus the arrow keys to rotate around your subject);
  4. untick the ‘Reset camera position…’ option on the Cameratools dialogue;
  5. start recording;
  6. press the forward arrow key to start walking.

Which should give you something like this purposeful stride through my 70s office:

Office stroll 2

With a mouse in Firestorm we can achieve smooth camera zooms in on (or out from) a subject, or rotational pans around one. Whilst this isn’t quite the degrees of freedom given by a Space Navigator, there’s still plenty than can be achieved using this technique. To create a rotational pan around your subject, it’s almost as simple as alt-clicking on it and moving your mouse left to right (or right to left). First, however, we need to enable a Firestorm option that will smooth out our mouse movement – and we can do this via the Camera Tools dialogue that we looked at last time. The option we’re looking for is the ‘Cam. Smoothing’ option at the bottom of the ‘Cam Controls 1’ tab. You can see it below outlined in purple.

Cam smooth

We don’t want to move the slider too far to the right for a simple rotational pan – the further right we go the harder it gets to control what’s going on. You can see above in the image on the right that I’ve chosen a value at around 40.

If you’ve never experimented with cam smoothing before, you’ll likely now find camming a pretty weird and unresponsive experience. Smoothing is not for regular SL usage, since it effectively introduces a delay lag in your camming. In fact, you’ll probably want to set up your frame composition before you change the smoothing value, because composing when smoothing is on is hard work. To go back to normality, either enter a 1 in the box or click on the D (default) button to the right of the slider.

Once you’ve arranged your frame the way you want it and adjusted the smoothing value, it’s now just a question of alt-clicking your subject (keep your mouse button held down), hitting record (don’t forget to remove the user interface and HUDs first, as outlined in part one) and initiating your pan. Move your mouse slowly in the direction you want to move it in (whilst still holding the left button down). A left-right movement will move the camera around your subject in a circle, whilst moving the mouse forwards or back will move the camera towards or away from it. You can, of course, do both at the same time. This is what I’ve done in the clip below, with the camera rotating around and slightly towards me and my magnificent 60s photocopier (which I’ll eventually get around to putting in my Marketplace store of assorted mid-century goodies). (2)

Additionally, holding down the ctrl key along with the alt key and the left mouse button as you move the mouse forwards or backwards will enable you to rotate upwards or downwards around your subject – useful for a shot where you want to show a dizzying drop in front of your protagonist, for example.

You can use the ctrl key mid-sequence if you want to combine, for example, an outward pan with some upwards rotation. I’ve done this in the clip below, starting with an outward pan (alt-clicking my avatar, keeping these held down and moving my mouse backwards), then pressing down also the ctrl key and continuing the backwards movement of the mouse. Can you spot the moment where I pressed down the ctrl key?

NRB pan

What about a straight left-right or up-down (ie, non-rotational) pan along the x or y axis? This is also possible with a mouse, however the cam smoothing effect will not impact on this (I’m not sure why), so it’s quite a bit harder to get a nice smooth pan. To do this, left click on an item in your scene that you want to be in the centre of the screen at the start of the shot, keep the mouse button down and then also hold down Shift + Ctrl + Alt – then move your mouse slowly left, right, up or down.

As you can see from the rather jerky clip below, this isn’t a technique I have mastered (and therefore did not use in Stömol). I suspect I might achieve better results with a higher resolution mouse (instead of the cheap piece of crap I currently use) and maybe some experimentation with mouse sensitivity settings and different surfaces to move it across. It’s also really hard to move only left-right without a tiny bit of up-down movement. Nevertheless, I include it here for the sake of completeness (and maybe one of the lovely Firestorm coders will one day implement can smoothing for this movement too).

office x pan

We’ve now covered most of the basic filming techniques for Firestorm. You might be thinking, “What if I want to do a rotational pan like this whilst the subject is moving?” Now we’re starting to hit up against some of the limitations imposed on us in SL. To get more complex shots, we’re going to have to start working with alts and with other people. I’ll look into that in the next two parts of this series.

7 thoughts on “Huck’s guide to making machinima in Second Life part three: camera movement

      1. Did you install the space navigator drivers? If yes, unistall them and use the space navigator without them. I saw that, if I install the drivers, the space navigator doesn’t work in firestorm viewer

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a top tip, Oema – I will definitely give that a go. I do have the drivers installed, yes, and the navigator seems to work perfectly with the calibration app provided. That’s why I thought it was Firestorm that was at fault. I will definitely try this out – thank you!


      3. Well well well. I’ve finally gotten around to doing this – unplugged the navigator, uninstalled the drivers and other software, restarted my machine, plugged the navigator back in, entered Firestorm… and it works! Thank you Oema!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s