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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

6 Things I Learned from Filming Outdoors

From making last week’s video, I learned a few things.

1. It was fun: It was fun to collaborate with people and it’s just interesting to see these characters go into different environments.

2. Watch out for the sunlight: While the puppets won’t get any sunburn (which I did a few weeks ago), sunlight is something that you should look out for outdoors if you are filming during the day. If the sunlight is strong and you are facing it directly, the characters might appear washed out. Then again, you don’t want the puppets in the shadow either, unless that’s what you are trying to achieve. So it’s nice to be able to find a spot that has a lot of ambient light, but not under direct sunlight. Well… that is, if you are trying to see every detail of the puppet. Bad lighting actually adds realism to the video, in my opinion. I actually don’t mind it.

3. Watch out for background noises: It’s ideal if you have a boom stick, but if you are just using the built-in microphone on the camera like I did, then you want to watch out for sound levels. It might be good to film all shots in a continuous scene from different angles, but preferably from similar distance. This is because if you are near the camera, the microphone will pick up your voices well, but when you are far away, you’ll have a harder time for the voices to be picked up. And when you put these videos together, the change in sound levels of your voices and background noises can become distracting. Remember, audio is a very important part of every video.

4. Filming from odd angles can teach you interesting things: Well, not everybody does this, but I tried filming upside down and sideways for the Inverted Fountain and Sideways Fountain gag. When we filmed this, we turned the camera to the desired angle, and then I’d puppeteer upside down (well, only the puppet was upside down; I wasn’t doing a head-stand) and sideways. The result came out looking fine, except that the lighting looks a little odd. Why? This is because we normally see the lit part on top and shadows on the bottom (since the light source is normally above characters) and now it’s the opposite. It was especially obvious when you look at the shadow cast on Mac and Cheese.

5. Storyboard (or communicate thoroughly) if you have very specific visions: When you film outdoors, one-man-shows are hard to do and you will most likely do some kind of collaboration (it’s more fun that way anyway). If you are very specific about what your shots should look like, you should storyboard, or at least tell everyone in detail what you are trying to accomplish. Of course, in this video, I didn’t care about that. I like to see what other people come up with and give me surprises (preferably pleasant ones) since a lot of this is improvisation and I trust them very much.

6. Expect the unexpected: In this video, the wind was blowing and Bottle Monster momentarily lost control of the paper he was holding. I kept that because I happened to like that accident and how the character reacted to it. But yeah, sometimes things don’t go as you intend them. You’ve got to have a plan B or be willing to accept a different result (or do another take if you really insist).

Although I know I’ll film indoors more often, because outdoor filming takes more work to plan out, there are things that’s simply attractive about seeing puppets out there in different environments. I will definitely take the puppets outdoors again in the future. :-)

Video special: Obscure UCLA facts you did not know

This week, instead of a regular episode, we decided to do something experimental. For the first time, we didn’t write any lines before we start filming, and for the first time, we are taking this outdoors. Also this is my first collaboration with my friend Rick Lee, who is a performer / improv-er that I’ve always been a fan of. So without further ado, here’s the video:

If you can’t see the embedded video,
Click here to watch it on YouTube.
Or download Quicktime movies here:
m4v format (78MB)
mov format (45MB)

It was a fun experience and experiment. The way this episode worked was like this: Rick and I both thought up ideas seperately beforehand, and then when we met up, we just developed the ideas a little more or went straight to filming. We did not write any lines and when we were done filming the ideas we came up with, we just walked around and looked for whatever that inspired us. Nhi joined us halfway and helped us film some scenes too.

I really enjoyed having the luxury of working with people that can just improvise. You don’t need to tell them what to say, and you don’t need to tell them where to point the camera. Also, I normally do three takes for each shot in regular episodes, but in this video, we just did one take for pretty much everything. Everything was more spontaneous. That actually made editing a lot easier. And collaborations are definitely more fun than me sitting in front of the camera talking to myself, haha. So thanks again, Rick and Nhi!

Yeah, I know some hands are showing and some heads are visible in the shots. Some shots looked a little odd, but whatever. It was fun that way.

How to do a split-screen effect with a matte: a case study

We are now doing a case study on how to do a split-screen effect with a matte. This effect was first experimented in Episode 3: Crazy Names and I have been using the effect for every episode ever since. The video footages I’m using for this tutorial was from Episode 7: Big Dipper but it just might as well be any other episode. The finished product looks like this:

Again, the editing software I use is Adobe Premiere Pro. If you use other software, the procedure should be pretty similar still. Also, I’m not going to talk about what mattes are and why they work this way over again since I already talked about them in the previous post, How to do a split-screen effect with a matte: the theory. If you haven’t read it, go read it now because it has cute stick figures and a couch. Boy, couches are hard to draw than I originally imagined. 😛

First we need to film the left side of the screen. We’ll call this Clip 1.
You can see my head in the lower righthand corner, but that’s alright. We are not using that half anyway.

Second, we need to film the right side of the screen. We’ll call this Clip 2.

And the last item we need is a matte that’s black on the left, white on the right, and a gray gradient in the middle. The red frame is not part of the matte. It’s just there in case you are reading this in an email or RSS reader that has a white background.

And now it’s time to edit.

1) Drag Clip 1 into video 1 (bottom layer) and Clip 2 into video 2 (layer above video 1): If you’ve read the previous post, you know why it’s in this order. 😉

2) Create a matte track: Create a new video track and rename it to “matte”. Well, you don’t have to rename it but it helps prevent confusions. Drag the matte into this track. Make the track invisible by clicking the eye to the left of the name of the video track. This is because while you want to use this matte, you don’t want the viewer to see all these black and white colors occupying the screen. They are there for a purpose, but not for viewing. So turn it invisible.

Now your timeline should look similar to this:

3) Apply the matte: To do this, go to Effects window. Under Video Effects => Keying, you will find Track Matte Key. Drag it into Clip 2’s Effect Control Window. And then under “Matte”, choose the video track that the matte is sitting on (in this case, “matte”). And then for the composite option, choose “matte luma” (the default is probably “matte alpha”). We are deciding the transparency of the pixels based on how bright a pixel in the matte is. That’s why we use the matte luma option.

And when you have done all these steps, the black on the left of the matte will turn the left half of Clip 2 transparent, allowing the left half of Clip 1 to show through (Mac and Cheese). The white on the right side of the matte will turn the right of Clip 1 opaque, thus showing the right half of Clip 2 (Bottle Monster) while blocking the right half of Clip 1 (background and my head). So you see the final result:

Now you can go nuts with the awesome split-screen effect! 😀

PS. In case you are wondering, the “reverse” option reverses the matte. That is, black is now opaque and white is now transparent. If you have the two clips in this current order, clicking on “reverse” will make the final result just the green background, since we are now showing the halves without the puppets. However, if you had put Clip 2 in video 1 and Clip 1 in video 2, this option will come in handy.

Related posts:

How to do a split-screen effect with a matte: the theory
Editing Trick: How to have two puppets on screen at the same time with only one puppeteer
How to do a green screen effect: the theory

How to do a split-screen effect with a matte: the theory

This post is about how to do a split screen effect, where there’s a background image across both parts of the screen, but you film the left and right halves seperately to be put together later. Here’s some ideas on how it works. For a more detailed step-by-step tutorial on how to actually accomplish this effect in an editing software, come back in a few days!

Let’s say you want to film you sitting on one end of the couch talking to someone on the other end of the couch, who is also played by yourself… something like this:

You’ll need three items to accomplish this effect:

1. The left half: Film yourself on the left half of the screen. We’ll call this Clip 1:

2. The right half: Film yourself on the right half of the screen. We’ll call this Clip 2:

3. Make a matte that defines how to composite these two halves together:
(Note: The outside red frame isn’t part of the matte. I only put it there in case you are reading this post in an RSS reader with white background.)

Now, what’s a matte and how does it work? A matte is something that you apply to a layer of video to decide how opaque or transparent the final result is going to be. Here we are using a grayscale picture, which is a picture with different shades of gray, with full black being the darkest gray, and full white being the lightest gray. When you apply this matte to a layer of video, the part that gets the white will be entirely opaque, and the part that gets the black will be entirely transparent (meaning, you won’t see anything). The gray parts are the semi-transparent parts. How opaque or how transparent the gray part is depends on how far it is from full black and full white.

For those that want to know why it’s that way (which is not essential for using this effect but might help your understanding), think about your monitor or TV when it’s off. When it’s off, it looks black. This is because your monitor displays colors by adding three beams of light (red, green and blue) together to form one pixel. When there’s no light, you get black. When they are all on full power, you get the sum, which is white. Different mixes of light beam / color strengths would add up to different color. So in a matte, white means that you want all colors to pass through, making that part fully opaque. On the other hand, black means the absence of colors, or not letting lights through. In that case, you get an image that’s transparent. A mathematical way to look at it is, for white, you are multiplying every pixel value by 1 and for black, you are multiplying every pixel value by 0. For gray, it’d be something in between like 0.2, 0.5, 0.8, hence making the pixel semi-transparent.

Now you want to put the two images together. First you want to put Clip 1 in the bottom layer (background) and Clip 2 in the top layer (foreground), and then you apply the matte to Clip 2. What this is going to do is:

1. The black part of the matte, which is the left half, will make the left half of Clip 2 transparent. When that part is transparent, it will show what’s in the background. This is how the left half of Clip 1 shows through.
2. The white part of the matte, which is the right half, will make the right half of Clip 2 fully opaque. So what we are seeing in the final composite is the left half of Clip 1 and the right half of Clip 2.
3. The gray gradient part of the matte, which is down the middle line, will make the middle region of Clip 2 semi-transparent. This is to accomplish a natural blending between the two videos. You don’t want to see a harsh dividing edge between the two halves. That’s why you want the two videos to blend down in the middle.

And then feed these three elements into your editing software (I’ll show you how in the next post), and you shall get the final result:

So that’s how mattes work. A detailed tutorial with actual video footages in a real editing software will be posted up in a few days. Stay tuned. :-)

PS. This effect was first experimented in Episode 3: Crazy Names, but you can see it in pretty much every single episode after that.

Related posts:
Editing Trick: How to have two puppets on screen at the same time with only one puppeteer
How to do a green screen effect: the theory

Episode 7 – Big Dipper

Episode 7 is here! In this episode, Mac and Cheese and Bottle Monster realized that the Big Dipper in the sky was broken. They decided to fix it… somehow. And this episode tells you about their attempt to fix the Big Dipper, so the people that are relying on it to find the North Star (Polaris) to find directions won’t get lost. Oh yeah, this episode references Episode 2: iBottle and Episode 4: Mr. Robottle. If you haven’t seen them, it would be good to check them out. :-)

If you can’t see the embedded video,
Click here to watch it on YouTube.
Or download Quicktime movies here:
m4v format (43MB)
mov format (12MB)

The music is Radio Martini by Kevin MacLeod. It’s licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

In terms of editing, this episode was quite a monster. It has quite a few items that I needed to animate. There’s quite a few places where I need to make sure the animations and puppetry work together. And a lot of the footages I filmed this time are not that great so it takes a lot of fixing. And also when I made so many references to previous episodes, I had to dig through a bunch of footages. Ah, quite some work, but I like a challenge.

Yeah, I know there’s a continuity but I’m too lazy to go back and fix it, so I am just going to hope that you don’t spot it. 😛 I actually expected this episode to come out over 4 minutes but it didn’t. I feel like the pacing is a little off. Certain things, especially the musical montage was a little rushed. But hey, you learn from mistakes. It’s still an entertaining episode, I thought, but I need to be critical to make these things better! :-)

If you have any thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment. Also remember that you can have new posts emailed to you or subscribe via iTunes.

Related posts:
Episode 4: Mr. Robottle (for the firing at the sky reference)
Episode 3: Crazy Names (for recurring character Bottle Monster’s Mom)
Episode 2: iBottle (for the usage of iBottle and mentioning of Captain Jack)

Ventriloquism 101

In case you didn’t already know, the winner of this season’s “America’s Got Talent” is Terry Fator. Terry Fator is a ventriloquist, impressionist and puppeteer, all wrapped up in one. Recently I saw a bunch of videos of Terry Fator’s performances on America’s Got Talent on a post from and man, I was so blown away by his performances. He’s not only a skillful ventriloquist, but he also has great timing, does great impressions, and is very charasmatic.

Although ventriloquism literally means talking from stomach, I’ve learned that it’s actually a lot like regular talking in terms of where the sounds are produced (still the voicebox and mouth). The difference is that you want to hide your lip movements to appear as if you are not speaking. If you are interested, here’s a web page about ventriquolism that I found to be very useful. Believe it or not, ventriloquism is actually not that hard!

Of course, I have to say that it still takes a lot of practice to be a great ventriloquist. When I say that it’s not hard, I’m saying that it’s not difficult to learn the basics. This is like saying, it takes a lot of practice to become a great painter, but it should not be that difficult to pick up a paint brush, dip it in paint, and run it across the surface of the paper. This is also like saying, it takes a lot of practice to become a pianist, but it’s not that hard to put your fingers on a keyboard to produce sounds. So, it’s not that difficult to get started but it takes lots of work to refine the skill. When you read this post, keep in mind that I’ve only started practicing since a week ago and while I consider it a fun thing to try, I’ve never intended to become an expert in it. With that in mind, here’s the basics as I understand it.

1. Ventriloquism is all about hiding lip movements: There are many words that you already know how to say without moving your lips. For example, say “egg” in front of a mirror and pay attention to your mouth. Now, depends on how you speak, you might have your mouth more wide-open when you are saying the Eh sound and more closed when you make the G sound because you are done saying the word, but say it again… and this time, try to keep your mouth in the same shape throughout. It should not be hard if you consciously try it. You can try to say other words or sentences too. Now try saying it with a big grin that shows teeth. If you can do it, you already know the basics of ventriquolism!

2. Avoid or modify sounds that require lip movements:
Some sounds require lip movements. For example, the F sound requires your upper teeth to touch your lower lip, the M sound requires you to bring your upper and lower lips together, the W sound requires you to round your lips, etc. Now, it’s physically impossible to pronounce these words correctly without moving your lips, so there are a few ways of dealing with this.

The first way is to mentally filter the things you are about to say. Instead of “picking” something, which has the P sound that requires you to move your lips, say “choosing” something. If you don’t say that words that requires your lips to move, then you won’t have trouble hiding your lip movements. The sounds to watch out for are B, P, V, F, M, Th, Q, W.

The second way is to replace or modify certain sounds. This is a lot like talking with an accent. For example, instead of “this” and “that”, you want to say “dis” and “dat”. People will still understand you, because people will substitute in what they think should be the correct word to go in there. Likewise, “fantastic” would become “hantastic” or “hoo-antastic”.

The third way is to move your lips anyway, but while you do so, hide your mouth movement somehow. This is the only way to go if you want to pronounce every word correctly. You can accompany the lip movement with some head movements too so people don’t pay as much attention. You can practice to keep your mouth as closed as possible so the lip movements are subtle and hard to see. You can use good puppeteering skills to distract the audience to look at the puppet instead of you. But whatever you do, you are like a magician. You want your audience to look at something else (your puppet) so they don’t pay as much attention to what you are really doing.

3. Practice with different mouth shapes: Maybe you already figure out how to speak without moving your lips with a huge grin (I like think of it as pretending to speak like someone with a frozen fake grin because the botox or facelift had gone wrong), but since you should be reacting to what the puppet is saying, you need to be able to do it with different facial expressiosns (hence different mouth shapes).

4. Practice, practice, practice: Those are pretty much the basics, I guess. But to become really good at this, you want to practice and practice some more to perfect the skill. You want to be able to switch back and forth between ventriloquism and regular speak very quickly and naturally. You want to practice showing one expression on your face and showing another expression on the puppet’s face because you are two different characters. You want to practice so that your lips are very still when the puppet is supposed to be doing the talking. You want to practice to have confidence when you are performing too.

And so that’s Ventriloquism 101! (That’s an exclamation mark after the sentence, not 101 factorial.) I hope this has been helpful for anyone reading this that’s trying to get started. :-)

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