subscribe to rss feed
subscribe by email

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

Video Chat

I bought a new toy – a new web cam! More specifically, a Logitech QuickCam Chat. And I went on my first video chat with my friend Walter whom I haven’t seen for a while. It’s nice to be able to see and hear each other even though we are not face to face. This certainly beats the telephone… of course, that is, when you don’t look like crap that day. But then again, I look fabulous every single day (okay, now that’s just totally not true).

I noticed something interesting though. Many youtube videos that involves someone talking into his/her webcam has this problem: They seem to be looking down instead of at the camera. This is because webcams are usually mounted above the monitor, so when the user is looking at the monitor, his or her eyes are looking below the camera, instead of at it. When I noticed myself doing that though, I quickly corrected myself. I guess that’s some sort of a puppeteer’s instinct.

Oh yeah, you thought this post is going to have nothing to do with puppetry?

When we puppeteer (and if there’s a monitor or the camera’s LCD screen), we are usually looking at what’s being filmed. Since we can’t really see through the puppets eyes, we pay attention to the monitor and tilt the puppet’s head to make it appear as if it’s looking into the camera. In the case of the video chat, I can see what the web cam is picking up as well, and I naturally tilted my head and looked into the camera. It’s like I am puppeteering myself. Hm, certainly didn’t expect myself to do that but it came quite naturally.

Ah, this is fun. Anyone want to do a video chat with me? Leave me a comment or drop me an email. :-)

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. :-)

Camera review: Canon ELURA 100

Let’s talk about what kind of camera I use to film these Puppet Kaos episodes.

The camera I’ve been using is a Canon ELURA 100. This is a Mini-DV camera. For those of you unfamiliar with video cameras, this means the video information you captured through the lenses is recorded onto a Mini-DV tape, as opposed to a digital-8 tape, VHS tape, or a DVD.

========== Why get a video camera? ==========

Before I purchased this camera, I was filming puppets using a digital camera that also take videos. While some of these cameras actually give you decent video quality, it’s often not very suitable for filming puppets. One reason is that puppets tend to be smaller than what you would normally film (actors) and you need to do more close-ups. And the digital cameras just don’t handle this as well as video cameras. The second reason is that it’s hard to see what you are filming: In video puppetry, you want to be able to see what you are performing, so you know if the puppet is facing the camera, if it’s out of the frame, or if your hands are showing. Normally you don’t have a LCD panel that you can turn around to look at on digital cameras. Third, the video footages can take up a lot of space on the memory card and they can fill up pretty quickly. A tape, on the other hand, give you a lot more storage. Besides, there’s a reason why video cameras exist… so you can film videos, of course.

========== Why I chose this camera ==========

I was looking at cameras that’s cheap enough that it’s normally used for home videos, but not so cheap that it’s a piece of toy that give you lousy images. So I was looking at cameras at around $300 range. (I happened to have gotten a good deal because of a sale that was going on.) I chose this one over other similar cameras of the same grade because it has

1) a 1/5″ CCD: A charge-coupled device (CCD) is the chip that basically senses the light information and then change them into digital signals. Theoretically, the bigger the CCD, the better the image. This particular camera has a bigger CCD than cameras of the same grade.

2) a microphone jack: This would give me the option of recording the audio using an external microphone rather than the built-in microphone. I haven’t really tried out this feature yet, but I’d like it to be there so I can use it someday.

3) the brand: Although my friend recommended SONY, I was confident that Canon, a company that’s been manufacturing cameras for a long time, would produce a camera that gives good images.

========== What I Liked about the Camera ==========

1) Good colors in good lighting: This camera can produce good colors when you have enough lights. If you look at the episodes Obscure UCLA Facts You Didn’t Know, which is filmed outdoors in natural sunlight, and Episode 8: Nobody’s Watching, which is filmed indoors but lit much better than the first 7 episodes, you see that the colors came out a lot better.

2) Very lightweight: It’s definitely very compact. It was pretty easy and light to carry.

3) Manual white balance available: I like to have this feature because sometimes the lighting I use are household lamps that’s yellow instead of white.

4) Manual focus available: This didn’t necessarily help me that much but sometimes I do set the focus manually so it’s a good feature to have.

5) Overall, it just does whatever you expect a digital camera to do: And that’s good. You don’t want technical problems to get in the way.

========== Features that I have not utilized but might try someday ==========

1) 16:9 widescreen: This camera allows you to easily switch between widescreen 16:9 and the regular 4:3 ratio. So far I’ve been using 4:3 to conform to Youtube and podcast standards but filming in widescreen is definitely something I might attempt in the future.

2) external microphone jack: Although I haven’t really used this jack, it just might be useful someday.

3) analog to digital conversion: This means you can play a VHS tape, route the video and audio signals through the camcorder and capture the result digitally. I might use this feature to archive some old LCC tapes later.

========== Some minor annoyance about this camera ==========

1) It does not perform so well in low light: In episodes that weren’t lit so well (episodes 1-7), the videos come out more blurry and grainy. That just means I need to light things better.

2) Tape drive noise: I was reading reviews about this camera and a few users complained that the tape drive was too loud. Back then, I used to record all the voices first and then play them back during filming for lip-sync. That was why I didn’t care that much about noises. However, these days I record the voices live using the built-in microphone. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the noise is indeed louder than on some other camcorders. If this is a concern, this camera is not for you. For me, it’s not ideal but it’s tolerable. That’s the trade-off you get for very small cameras: the microphone is very close to the tape drive.

3) Firewire jack placement: They placed the firewire jack near the battery, which is next to the LCD screen. This means, if you are capturing the video, the LCD screen has to be open (and on). This drains the battery over time but as long as you have power cord plugged in, you are fine.

4) No infrared night vision mode: I was looking for this but didn’t find it. Either the camera doesn’t have it, or it’s hard to find. I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ll be using it much anyway.

So, those are my thoughts after filming with this same cameras for a few months. If you are shopping for a camera, there are many camera reviews that you can find online that’s written by people that’s more knowledgeable about cameras and the technical aspects. But here, I offer my thoughts after using the camera, especially focused on the particular (and perculiar) stuff that I’m filming. Hope it’s been helpful. :-)

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. :-)

How episodes used to be filmed

I have recently moved and I’ve taken some pictures of the old place and it’s time to reminisce about it now that I’ve unpacked my camera. These pictures shows you where Episodes 1 to 7 are filmed. (I’m currently editing Episode 6, and Episode 7 is on a tape that’s in a box somewhere.) I used to film the episodes in front of a sink. That’s right. Why? Because it was well-lit and had (barely) enough depth.

This is the door that I used to tape the backdrops on. The backdrops are just solid color papers that I taped on the door. In some shots where I wasn’t that careful, and in the bloopers episode you should be able to see the tapes or marks left on the paper by the tape. They sure weren’t anything fancy.


In this picture you see the light bulb that provided lighting for our videos. I knew that I’d be moving in the near future so I didn’t want to purchase extra lamps or what-not. I just look for a spot that’s bright enough for filming. In some episodes I actually watched out for the white balance and in some episodes (especially early ones) I didn’t take into account that the light is yellow. But anyway, here’s what our lighting looked like. Simple.


And then here’s the sink that I put my tripod in. Now, why would I put the tripod in the sink instead of on the floor? Well, the primary reason is that, if I put it on the floor, it’d have to be in front of the sink. In that case, I wouldn’t have much distance between the camera and the backdrop, and two puppets wouldn’t be able to fit in the same shot. Here’s the picture of the sink:


Putting the tripod in the sink had an interesting effect, though. Since the sink was a curvature, rather than a flat surface, all you need to do to tilt the camera to different angles is to move it slightly within the sink. Because the three legs of the tripod would be standing on different parts of the sink with different slopes, it would give you all these different angles without having to adjust the length of the legs themselves. It was also very stable. Quite an interesting effect. I wouldn’t do this intentionally but it just happened to have worked that way.

I don’t know what the new set-up would look like yet, but yeah, I’m sure I’d miss this old set-up. It was not the most professional, but man, it worked darn well. :-)

PS. Oh yeah, and this place was right next to bus stops so I had to film in the middle of the night, otherwise there’s too much noise outside. Also I had a roommate so I tend to film when he’s not there, due to noise issues as well.