November 23, 2009

Part 2: On Animated Poems & YouTubing

I've been very grateful for the flurry of feedback in response to my video of "Vocation," forthcoming in I Was the Jukebox this April. In addition, it's been a great excuse to talk about the larger topic with other poets. What I'm hearing falls into one of two categories:

The first is "Oh! Have you seen [X]! I love that one!" This tells me that when you get it right there is potential for not just casual enjoyment, but real delight. My video work is nowhere near "real delight" yet, but I have some ideas. Here's a great one I learned about from you all, Jeffrey McDaniel's "The Foxhole Manifesto":

...a little long, but killer images.

The other thing I keep hearing is "Yeah, I've heard about those, but I'm not clear on how it works." This reminds me of the way people talked about blogs five years ago. So let's get into some nitty gritty of how these videos get made.


I use iMovie, because it was already installed on my system. But if it hadn't been a freebie I'd still recommend it. The interface is intuitive and lets you drag-and-drop images (moving and still) in sequence. You then anchor sound and text to these images. Editing duration time and text placement can be done through a combination of keystrokes and mouse clicks, with the results visible in situ--meaning, as long as you're not afraid to push buttons, you can fumble your way toward refinement. The import/export system works with a multitude of file types and includes a set of "Share" menu shortcuts that prime your video for YouTube and iTunes formats.

If you are a Windows user, you have the free option of Movie Maker. My understanding is that this has a similar drag-and-drop functionality, but requires more manual fussing to get it into a format which can easily be uploaded and shared.

There are some web-based "movie makers," but I don't think they offer enough sophistication to handle a project like this. One exception is this program, "Xtra Normal: Text-to-Video":
...which someone with the right humor could use to good effect.

A gratuitously technical note on formats: YouTube accepts videos no more than 10 minutes in length and 2 GB in size--unlikely to be a problem here. YouTube prefers resolutions of 640x360 (16:9) or 480x360 (4:3), and the YouTube site displays videos at 480x360 DPI. Unfortunately, a lot of default image-capture settings and (inexpensive) stock images come in at a slightly lower resolution than that. This means that your images will blur when viewed on the YouTube site, much like when you view a DVD "full-screen" on your laptop. The good news is that if you export/upload in the "standard format" (4:3), you can tweak the embed setting so that anywhere else you post the video, it appears in a smaller frame (340 x 285) and therefore, shows a crisper image. If you export/upload in "widescreen format" (16:9), it'll look great on the YouTube site. But the lowest resolution YouTube offers in its embedding settings for widescreen is 500x315, which means it will be blurry elsewhere--and get clipped if embedded in a blog.

Long story short: I think exporting in standard format, and embedding on the smallest scale, is the best deal for those starting out.


The biggest (and justified!) criticism of "Vocation" is that the soundtrack is tinny. I know. I'm using a $30 external mic that plugs into the USB port. Frankly, the built-in probably works just as well. If I really get in the habit of these, I'll either buy a better mic or borrow one from a musician friend.

I've also heard GarageBand (another program automatically bundled on my system) may allow me to fine-tune the recording, but I haven't tried it out yet.

The iMovie software lets you record the voiceover while watching the images stream, which can be very helpful in terms of timing. You can do one long rendition, or a bunch of short clips matched to sections or stanzas. If you need a WAV or MP3 of your poem separate from making the video, I recommend Audacity as a good free recorder/editor. You can then import it to your video and synch up images to match.


Two words: Kevin MacLeod

Got a favorite song that perfectly matches your poem? Great. Don't use it. Those songs are copyrighted. Use royalty-free, but don't use midi except for humorous effect (it sounds cheesy). If you use more than one song in the space of a video, make sure they're of the same genre and use some of the same instrumentation. Otherwise it'll be too harsh a jump. You want music that operates on a subconscious level, cushioning the voiceover. That might not be the same music you'd enjoy listening to for fun.

Some folks opt out of background music. That works best if you've got top-notch recording equipment for your voiceover, which I do not.


You can import images or short videos from a camera. I'm insecure about this because of continuity issues--lighting, framing, palette--but it's a good option if you're experienced.

You can use images skimmed off the internet, though be sure they are not copyright protected and that they are of sufficient resolution.

My resource is iStockphoto, which has the drawback of requiring payment. For still images fees are minimal--a few dollars for the "Extra Small" image (sufficient resolution for YouTube). The moving images are pricey ($20 per), so be smart about your choices. You can usually get a free "comp" image (watermarked with "iStockphoto"), which can serve as a useful placeholder while you're making preliminary image choices. An example:

If you choose to go the stock image route, some things to keep in mind...

-My first cut only used visual text for emphasis. But this makes the video inaccessible to anyone who wants to see it from an office computer, or who lacks speakers. So I redid it with full text, which meant I needed to choose images with space for legible text.

For example, that meant I had to shift from this image:

to this one, where I had the room to run a line of text across the top.

-Go for a mix of literal images (discrete objects), abstract interpretations of the text, and "white noise" backgrounds.

-Choose images that segue well. That means a series of images that are the same medium (photo/line drawing/digital rendering), or all full bleeds, or all isolated images set against a white or black background.

-Don't pay for a moving image where the "motion" consists of pan & scan or zooming in for a close-up. You can do that with a static image as part of the iMovie editing process (they call it the "Ken Burns effect").

-Look for moving images that are "loopable," meaning it can be seamlessly played several times in a row. It's very frustrating to realize that you've bought a 14 second video clip to illustrate a line that takes 18 seconds to deliver well.

-Don't forget about creating an atmospheric entry (that includes some kind of title caption) and exit (that includes some degree of credits, link to a website, etc.). There's tons of stock stuff designed for this purpose; try searching for "film leader." It's not just needless bells and whistles--it gets the audience in a mood sympathetic to your video.


I can't walk you through the assembly process. There's too many intangibles to articulate here. You'll do a lot of do-ing and undo-ing. You'll lose work at least once. You'll swear at least four times.


You finish your movie. You preview it in iTunes or Quicktime and it looks OK. So...?

You'll probably want to upload it to YouTube. In case you're wondering, YouTube accounts are free and very easy to set up. They do a good job tracking traffic, they provide easy code for others to share or embed the video, and it's where people will go to look for you.

But don't upload it to YouTube right away. Sleep on it--odds are you'll think of something you want to change. YouTube doesn't let you save over an uploaded file. You have to delete (deleting with it that particular link, and that view count) and reload.

Why do this? These videos will never supplant the poems themselves. I don't expect to monetize them. Enjambment tends to get lost, unfortunately, which means in some ways you have to compromise the poem to make this work.

But anything that gets your poems to a *slightly* different audience than before intrigues me. It's the same reason we put poems on buses and subway cars--and in that spirit, try to choose poems that translate to a public and attention-span-challenged space.

I suspect I'm not the only poet who at one point wanted to be a visual artist, and there's something deeply satisfying about this process (think of it as getting to design your own cover, except to the umpteenth power).

Plus, sooner or later someone will visit YouTube and search for your name. They will. Whoever you are. Wouldn't you like to control what comes up when they do?

Because in my case, I am otherwise at the mercy of fan-love for a character in The Office:

...Okay, that's it for now. Is this helpful? I hope this is helpful! For those looking for an even more detailed walk through, check out this series of posts by another author, Terisa Green.

Read the "Part 1" post here.
Read the "Part 3" post here.


Matthew said...

Wow. Thorough and thoughtful post! The "how-to mixed" with the "why." Very nice.

Jessie Carty said...

I really have been meaning to do a similar post from the PC side but you hit a lot of the fine points right on the head.

For people wanting to look for other free imgs try wikipedia and search for creative commons and public domain items. That has been a lifesaver for me.

Audio, is by far, the hardest part to make sound good. Some of the newer cell phones have good enough audio that you can record there and pull it off to your PC. The best audio I've found for my vids lately has been using the mic on my digital camera. Surprisingly it doesn't have the tinny sound and popping that I was experiencing my cheap usb mic :)

Thanks for sharing the mac end of it!

Sandra said...

Thanks! And Jessie, I know you've been working your way through my blog posts lately--thanks for all the good feedback. I agree, Creative Commons is a really good resource. I used that a lot in my days as an art editor.

Cheers, SB