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

Chinese Shadow Puppets

Though I’m more influenced by Taiwanese puppetry than Chinese puppetry, the shadow puppets thing I did was mostly inspired by one type of Chinese puppetry called Pi Ying Xi (皮影戲). It literally translates to “leather shadow drama”. The puppets are often made of leather, since paper is not as durable and plastic wasn’t available back then. This is a video of what it looks like.

Note that they used colors. Some puppet theatre choose not to use colors and just do it in black and white. They have different feels to them.

This next footage is how the puppets are actually performed behind the scenes… literally.

Next up… how I made my own shadow puppet show in Episode 14 – Tofu. (No, I didn’t use leather.)

Shadow Puppets – the best anti-depressant

shadow_antidep.jpgI was depressed, and shadow puppets brought me out of it.

Okay, okay, I was exaggerating. :-p

The recent episode has a shadow puppet segment and that part was filmed in December. Sometime in December I was feeing quite lethargic for some reason. I still go to work (and work hard cuz there was a lot to be done in that month). I still went hang out with friends; for example, we went to a friend’s concert and a friend’s house to play poker and so on. But for some reason, I just feel like I’m not quite interested in or care about anything, and I feel really low in energy. I just felt apathetic about things, and again, had no motivation and energy to do things… until one night, when I was in bed trying to sleep, an idea hit me:

I am going to make shadow puppets and that would be so awesome!

I was so excited about the idea that I got out of bed to look for my knife (to make shadow puppets, not to kill anyone), but couldn’t find it. Bummer, I guess I’d had to wait till the next day. Despite that, all the energy came back to me instantly. Funny how such a silly idea can do to me!

Anyway, that was sort of a story behind the shadow puppets thing. It was a fun thing to do. I’ll talk about how I made those things soon. (It’s actually quite simple.)

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Ah, I love Christmas. I like Christmas music. They make me feel happy. I like Christmas decorations. They are festive. I like Christmas specials – mostly the classics like the Charlie Brown one, Rudolph, Frosty and all that old stuff. It’s nice to see all these whimsical things.

I’ve been home with family, and away from my video making equipments. I had a few things written and some voice recorded, but I didn’t have enough time to actually throw together a Christmas video. Maybe I’ll finish it up in January but that’s kind of lame. Or maybe I can save it for next year? We’ll see what happens.

For now, here’s a little video I made last year titled “All I Want for Christmas is U”.

Filming in the dark or filming in the light

Some scripts call for things that happen at night. Sometimes I film them in the dark, and sometimes I don’t film them in the dark, but instead make the images darker in editing. So what’s better? Let’s check out my little experiments.

In Episode 12 – Daylight Saving, I experimented with filming in the dark for the power outage scene in the beginning. This is the outcome.

And in Obscure Facts about UCLA You Didn’t Know, we filmed the tunnel scene which takes place at night, but we filmed it in broad day light because we were there in the morning. So I had to take a bright and light picture and make it dark in editing. This is the result.

Now, which one is better? I’d say they each has their own pros and cons.

Pros for filming in the dark
In the first picture, the darkness is authentic because it was indeed filmed in the dark. When we are in the dark, we don’t see colors as well as we do in daylight. This is because we have two kinds of photoreceptors in our eyes, rods and cones. Cones are the ones in charge of gathering color information but cones don’t work well in darkness. Rods are the ones that work better in low light situations but they don’t gather color information. So in the dark, we see shapes and movements, but not so much colors. When this translates to video, it means you’d want to get a dark picture without so much color information. What the camera captured was similar to what our eyes saw in this case.

Pros for filming in the light
In the second picture, this image is done by taking a video in broad daylight and then digitally decreasing the brightness level in a video editor. Since it’s not filmed in the dark, there are more richness in the colors. Now, the richness in colors is good for a better contrast of the foreground characters and the background. This is good if you want to see more clearly what the characters are doing, and it makes the foreground characters stand out more. Sometimes, having some light in the foreground can be used as a trick to emphasize how dark the background (and hence the overall picture) is. This shot below is also filmed in daylight but darkened in the editor. You can see a pretty cool contrast between the foreground and background.

Cons for filming in the dark
If you watch the Daylight Saving video that the first picture is from, you might have noticed that Bottle Monster seems to come in and out of focus a lot. This is because I was filming in the dark and I manually dialed the exposure setting on the camera all the way down to get an even darker picture. This gave the camera’s auto focus mechanism a hard time to focus on Bottle Monster, because his color is similar to the dark background. This doesn’t happen to Mac and Cheese as much because he is yellow and bounces off more light. This problem can probably be solved by using the manual focus setting on the camera, but really, when you are filming in the dark, you simply don’t have as much control over the image because the camera has a harder time sensing lights, and you have a harder time looking at the camera’s LCD screen for what’s being filmed as well.

Cons for filming in the light
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s good for contrast between the foreground and background. However, if you don’t want that much contrast and color, and instead just want everything dark, then filming in the light isn’t a good idea. Also, any shots that’s manipulated in the video editor might come out having an artificial feel. It might not look as natural as a shot that’s actually filmed in the dark.

So which one would be a better choice?
This probably depends on what kind of shot we want, but in general, I’m not going to go for either extremes. In the future, I’m going to film something in dimmed lights where the brightness level is higher than that dark picture and lower than the daylight. This will give me a more natural feel to the final product while also giving me some control in terms of brightness and contrast with colors. Since that’s probably enough lights for the camera’s auto focus mechanism, I’m probably not going to use the manual focus. I’m probably not going to be adjusting the exposure either, but instead I’ll adjust the light level as best as I can. Filming in the dark can certainly be tricky, but the ones done well are certainly interesting to look at. :-)

Silent Films are Hard

I attempted a lil bit of the silent movie stuff in Episode 10 – Silent Sneeze. At first I thought, it would be less work, because my script only needs to be about half of the usual length since time is divided between video footage and captions, and also that I don’t really need to do any kind of lip sync. But, as it turned out, it was actually a lot of work that I didn’t think about, or did think about but didn’t think it’d take that much work.

At first, I thought I’d just cut it first, and then I’d adjust the length of video footages and captions to fit the music I picked. After going through some music, I decided on one and then started putting captions in the editors to time things. That is when I decided that that the up and downs of the music should go along with the plot line. This means, although I am not going to change the plot, I’m going to shift things around a lil bit to get the timing right.

And that took a lot more work.

There was a pause in the music. I tried to match this up with the “15 minutes later” part. There was also this part in the music that has a lil bit of a goofy feel to it, so I matched it up with Bobby and Moostifer’s funky song. And then towards the end of music, it starts to build and build before it resolves. I decided that I want this part to coincide with the problem solving process… how they figured out what cause a sneeze and how they had the revelation that Bottle Monster couldn’t have sneezed without a nose. It was more tedious work but I’m glad that I made that effort.

I normally cut together the video before I started adding captions, but in this video, I put in the captions first. This is so I can time them against the music. And when I’m done figuring out where and how fast each caption goes, I started designing the shots. I thought it would just be like an usual episode of Puppet Kaos except now the line isn’t shown until after the motion of talking is shown, but I noticed that I needed to put more thoughts into it. Because the lines aren’t heard immediately when the puppets’ mouths are moving, I need to design each shot more carefully. They need to have motions that’s more distinct. Normally, you’d want continuous smooth motions and transitions, but in this case, you want one distinct motion after another, since they are already broken up by captions in between. For example, one shot should just focus on Bobby and Moostifer singing, one shot should focus on Mac and Cheese typing on the computer, and another shot should focus on Bottle Monster drinking the potion. They all need to be really distinct.

Actually, distinct motions are still important with videos that’s not silent. They are just less chopped up into segments. Hm, maybe it would be a good idea to watch a bunch of good silent films. We can certainly benefit from watching how people try to convey things without the lines being heard immediately. And yes, I do like exaggerated motions. And silent films have a lot of them.

What inspired me to write each episode (6-10)

Here’s a summary of what inspired each episode. It can get quite long so I’m breaking them into two posts. The first part is here.

Episode 6: Dance, Dance, Dance
What inspired this episode? Well, I thought it would be fun to have the puppets dancing. It was nice that I didn’t have to write lines, but it’s also very time-consuming to edit. But it was entertaining to watch nevertheless.

Episode 7: Big Dipper
This was inspired by this little tutorial on how to identify stars and constellations in the night sky. It was fun for me, and I thought, what if I do an episode about the night sky? After some brainstorming, I decided that it’d be fun to bring back Bottle Monster’s mom, Mr. Robottle and iBottle. It was tedious to dig out all footages but for me, the callback is worth it.

Obscure UCLA Facts You Didn’t Know
When Rick email me and told me that he liked my videos, I was pretty happy because I’ve always been a fan of his performances and humor. So I started to drag him into brainstorming with me, hehe. And this was around the time that school was about to start so we thought it’d be interesting to do a video on it. This was the episode that’s not really written. We just improvise things on the spot because improvising is actually very natural to us.

Episode 8: Nobody’s Watching
When I was meeting with Rick we came up with a few ideas for upcoming episodes and some of them don’t work that well with the question-and-answer format. I knew at some point, we’d be changing it up a little bit, so this episode is sort of setting that up. And this is another one of those “if you don’t know what to write, then write about not knowing what to write” cases. This is also kind of similar to the first episode where I just make puppets do what I do as a writer with the brainstorming… except that they have the luxury of dramatizations and I can only write on a piece of paper. Also I thought it would be fun to do one of those previews because it’s fall and every channel is doing it for the new season. And it would be fun to do one of those trailers with that deep announcer voice.

Episode 9: WordCraft
This post is inspired by the word “lexicon”. I have no idea why I was talking about that word at work with my co-workers, but I was saying that lexicon is a convention for Lexus cars. It was quite a stretch, but then I thought, hey, maybe I can come up with more words like these. So I came up with a bunch. This was also the first episode with materials written by Rick.

Episode 10: Silent Sneeze
I thought it would be fun to do a silent episode. It would be awesome because it’s a new genre to try and I like trying out new things. Also, I figured that I wouldn’t need to write that many lines so I can have the same length episode while not writing that many lines. It turned out to be a lot of work though, because you have to time the lines and actions to the music, and the motions have to be designed better since there’s no sound involved and there’s a delay in when the captions actually show what they are saying. It’s a very good learning experience though. I had to give Bottle Monster an excuse to not be able to sneeze. First I decided that he cheered for his team too hard so he lost his voice (this was around the time for Major League Baseball postseasons), but later I thought, sneezing would be a more interesting excuse and I can involve the fact that Bottle Monster doesn’t have a nose. It was partially inspired by the “Where is my Hairbrush” song from Vegetales that someone once sent me.

Edit: You know, I wrote this post last night and didn’t bother to read it over until today. What I realized is that I give “would be fun” as the reason for writing the story for most (if not all) of the episodes. I guess that’s what it is. It has to be a fun idea for you. That’s how you write, especially with comedy.

Related post:
What inspired me to write each episode (6-10)
Episode 6: Dance, Dance, Dance
Episode 7: Big Dipper
Obscure UCLA Facts You Didn’t Know
Episode 8: Nobody’s Watching
Episode 9: WordCraft
Episode 10: Silent Sneeze

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