Actor, Career Exploration, Content Creator, Video Producer

Upgrading My Video Skills

As my job saga search trudges on, I want to make sure I’m still reserving time to continue my exploration of new fields and improve my skills. And hey — if I get to have fun and eat ice cream along the way (more on that later), even better!

My filmmaking journey

I have spoken extensively about my video production journey throughout this sabbatical. It has been the one area of exploration that has been a true roller coaster, with a lot of ups and downs, and a few false starts.

I sprinted out the gate with a crash course in filmmaking and naively dove into the deep-end, trying to produce a pretty complicated and time-intensive video. Being inspired by a number of YouTubers, I strived for a high-production, super polished product, forgetting that even those creators started with much simpler videos.

When I eventually decided to go back to the basics, it felt like my study of filmmaking finally started to have an upward trajectory, gaining new and more advanced skills with every project.

A shelter-in-place video

Well, in case you didn’t already guess, I recently completed another film project that, once again, pushed me to learn new video techniques.

For a while, I’ve been wanting to work on a video project that really embraced the new “way of the world” during shelter in place. That is, a video that didn’t just use social distancing tools such video conferencing and remote filming as unfortunate but necessary substitutions for more traditional filmmaking, but rather embraced and intentionally integrated these tools and techniques into the story.

I looked at some of my favorite stories and plays and imagined how the characters would have adjusted to shelter in place. How would Gwendolen and Cecily’s confrontation in The Importance of Being Earnest play out over Zoom? In an Animal Crossing version of Pride and Prejudice, would it be a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife … and turnips?

With the holidays approaching, I instantly thought of one of my favorite musicals, She Loves Me, whose story culminates on Christmas Eve. The play centers around Amalia and Georg, two co-workers who are constantly bickering, unaware that they are also each other’s secret pen-pals, met through a lonely-hearts ad.

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi star as Amalia and Georg in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2016 production of She Loves Me. Photo credit: ©2016 Joan Marcus

In one of my favorite scenes, Amalia is home sick after a heartbreaking night of being stood up by her pen-pal, whom she calls “Dear Friend”. Unbeknownst to her, “Dear Friend” did show up — it was Georg all along! But he was conflicted at the revelation that Amalia has been his pen pal this whole time (which he discovers by seeing that she has the copy of Anna Karenina and a rose — the way that “Dear Friend” was supposed to identify her). Instead of revealing that he is her “Dear Friend”, he instead teases her, and Amalia ends the night thinking she has been abandoned. The next day, Georg feels guilty and brings her some vanilla ice cream, which, according to him, is “the best thing in the world when you’re sick.”

Remember when I mentioned I got to eat ice cream for this project? 🙂

But what would that ice cream delivery have looked like during shelter in place? That is the story I set out to tell!

In this blog, I’m going to give a behind-the-scenes look into the process of creating this video. If you don’t want any spoilers, go ahead and skip to the end of this post, where I’ve embedded the final video.

Starting with storyboarding  

Though I was going to film in an unconventional way, I still followed a lot of the traditional production planning process.

So, as will any other video project, I started with the script and shot list. Well, the script was easy since I was adapting an existing story; though, I did make a few changes to reflect the new setting for the scene. As for my shot list, this is where I had to decide on my vision for the film. How would I translate the story from 1930’s Budapest to 2020 pandemic Bay Area?

I knew I wanted to incorporate shelter in place into the setting. That is, I didn’t want to film each actor remotely and try to pretend like they were in the same room. I wanted a socially distant interaction to be an integral part of the story.

Ok, so what are the main elements in the scene and how do I adapt them to shelter in place?

1) Georg visits Amalia and has a surprisingly friendly interaction with her. 

Easy. Instead of an in-person visit, Georg would drop in on Amalia via some type of video conference. I ended up going with Zoom, since the waiting room feature could easily replicate a surprise knock on the door, and I could get footage of Amalia before and after Georg joins the video call.

2) Georg brings Amalia some vanilla ice cream.

Georg was no longer visiting Amalia in person, so how exactly was he going to give her ice cream? Well, this was an easy solution because I just did what I’ve seen so many people do during shelter in place. He has ice cream delivered to her via DoorDash (or whatever your favorite food delivery app is).

On a related note, this adaptation resulted in the biggest script change. While in the original scene, Georg is there with Amalia in person and so he simply hands her the ice cream, in this shelter-in-place version, Amalia needed to go off screen to answer the door and get her ice cream delivery. This, of course, created a lull in the scene that doesn’t exist in the original script. So, I scripted in an improv section where Georg would practice his confession to Amalia (that he is really “Dear Friend”) but ultimately realizes there’s not a good way to admit it. This not only filled the time but also gave context on the story for viewers of the video who were not familiar with the play.

3) Amalia writes a letter to “Dear Friend”.

The scene ends with a musical number (“Vanilla Ice Cream”) in which Amalia starts writing a letter to her pen pal “Dear Friend” but keeps getting distracted as she remarks how uncharacteristically friendly Georg was. 

So how to adapt that for my new setting? She writes an email, of course! (The Hungarian play, Parfumerie, which serves as the source material for She Loves Me, was also the inspiration for You’ve Got Mail).

In general, I wanted it to look like the viewer was getting a glimpse of Amalia’s computer. So, we’re really seeing the interaction through Amalia’s eyes. Here’s how the scene was going to play out — a pseudo shot list of sorts:

  • Amalia has a Zoom meeting started, using it as a sort of mirror to see how she’s looking.
  • Dejected, she pulls up her browser to Google “how many cats makes you a crazy cat lady” (a little bit of comedy and storytelling, showing that after being stood up, she fears she’ll be single forever).
  • Georg requests to join her Zoom, being put in her “waiting room”.
  • Amalia admits Georg into her meeting and they play out the scene over Zoom.
  • Georg leaves the meeting and Amalia starts drafting her letter, only to get distracted (the song “Vanilla Ice Cream”).

With my creative vision in place and the changes to the script made, it was time to figure out how I was going to make it come to life on the screen.

Planning the production

I was on a quick timeline for this project. Because the musical culminates on Christmas Eve, I wanted to release the video at the beginning of Christmas week. That means I really only had a week and a half to prepare, film and edit the entire thing.

How could I do this as quickly and easily as possible without sacrificing quality?

Well, for filming, I knew the characters were going to interact over Zoom, and it would have been easy enough to just record the Zoom meeting and call it a day. However, I also wanted viewers to see other things happening on Amalia screen, such as when she drafts her latest “Dear Friend” email in a text document. So I needed a way of capturing the action on the larger screen. 

Luckily, from my time making tutorial videos at Facebook, I was well-versed with using QuickTime’s screen recording feature, where you can essentially film your whole screen or a portion of your screen. Ok, filming plan set!

As for the song at the end? Well, of course, I could have sung live while filming the action of the scene. But I was worried about how well I’d actually be able to pick up my audio while performing the song. So, I decided it would be best to pre-record the song, and I’d lip sync during the actual filming.

I was going to play Amalia and quickly set out to cast Georg (one of my best friends and film mentor, Christian Pizzirani). I sent him the script on a Wednesday, reserving one rehearsal for us that Sunday, with filming scheduled the following weekend.

Everything was planned; now, it was time to prepare for the shoot.

The recording studio

One of my first priorities was recording the song. This is the whole finale of the scene, and if it didn’t work out, I wasn’t sure there was a point in doing the video at all. I found a great instrumental version of the song on YouTube to use as the backing track. Then, I set up a little recording studio in my closet.

Fun fact: Clothes make for good sound proofing.

And the great thing about pre-recording the song? I didn’t need to sing it perfectly in one take! I knew I was going to edit the vocals onto the back-tracking anyways, so I could splice together bits from different takes. In fact, I didn’t even sing the whole song in one take. The penultimate note in this song is a high B, which can take a toll on even vocals on even professional singers.  So, after getting warmed up, I actually recorded the end of the song first!

I combined the vocal tracks and the instrumental track in Logic. I did end up splicing together multiple takes. My husband and expert audio engineer Ryan Lee Short did all of the sound mixing and EQ. And the end result is a studio-quality track!

The song was done, and I spent the week practicing lip syncing to it. During actual filming, when we got to that point in the scene, I had the song queued up on my iPad and discreetly pressed “play”.

Now I had to test out the filming set-up.

Preparing to film

After rehearsing the Sunday before filming and solidifying how the action would play out, I spent the week testing out all of the technology I’d be using to shoot the scene.

And it’s a good thing I did. 

Remember that plan about doing the scene over Zoom but actually using QuickTime to “shoot” the scene so that I could film not only the Zoom meeting but the larger desktop? Yeah …. turns out, when you run QuickTime and Zoom at the same time, Zoom gets really choppy.

Uh oh. 

Luckily, I quickly pivoted. Instead of filming everything in one go, I would film the different elements in pieces and then composite them in my video editing software.

So, now the interaction between the character would just be recorded in Zoom. And then I would do a separate screen recording of the action on my entire desktop using QuickTime with just a blank Zoom screen and combine the two together.

While this was going to add more time in editing, I realized it was actually going to make filming quicker.

The scene plays out in one shot, which means every element needed to go perfectly or the take was ruined. Now that I was splitting up the action happening on the desktop and the conversation happening on Zoom, it eased the pressure on that front.

Lights, camera, action!

Filming the scene actually went really smoothly. Saturday was scheduled as a technical rehearsal to practice things like Georg entering and exiting the Zoom meeting and Amalia turning off and on her camera. And in the end, we filmed a couple of takes of the scene. Again, because this is filmed as just a one-shot (recorded over Zoom), it was actually really quick to shoot the scene.

I used Zoom’s record meeting feature to capture the action of the scene.

That night I viewed the footage and there was actually a take I was pretty happy with. But we had already set aside time on Sunday to film, so I took the opportunity to note little changes I wanted, particularly on my end.

That was one big learning — it’s difficult to direct and act in the same project, as it’s hard to catch a lot of the visual things you (and to a certain extent, the other actors) are doing until you go back and view the footage. For example, a lot of my notes for filming the next day were about eyelines — it read better when we looked directly into our webcams, even though normally when you’re in a Zoom meeting you tend to look at your screen (meaning your eyes are focused below the camera).

So Sunday, we filmed a few more takes, and that was a wrap! Well, at least for the other actor.

On my end, I had to choose my favorite take, and get the right edit of it. Then I played the footage while I recorded the desktop action, perfectly choreographed and synced with the action of the scene. 

I actually broke the screen recording up into three elements:

  • Recording the entire desktop with a blank Zoom meeting going and the action of pulling up and later minimizing the browser and pulling up a text document
  • Recording just the action of the Google search
  • Recording just the action of typing the “Dear Friend” email

Filming was complete, and now it was time to put it all together. To the editing room!

Snip, snip, snip

Ok, the editing room is just my living room, but you get the picture.

First, I worked on the scene recorded in Zoom. Again, since I wanted to show the action in “one shot” there wasn’t much visual editing that needed to be done — mostly trimming the beginning and end. 

However, there was a lot of audio editing required, which I didn’t originally anticipated. One drawback to recording over Zoom — it’s hard to control audio levels. I couldn’t even monitor them while filming! This is one big difference between the way this project was filmed and a more traditional video shoot.

So I ended up doing a lot of audio adjustments to the scene in Logic. This ended up being a good thing, as it allowed me to learn a lot more about the program, such as using nodes and adjusting little bits of an audio track. 

In one portion of the scene, my audio levels were really quiet while my scene partner’s level were a bit too loud. Luckily, I was able to even it out in Logic.

In Logic, I also applied a lot of the same EQ settings to the spoken scene that were used on the song, so that there wouldn’t be a huge disconnect between the two.

And finally, I synced the song with the scene.

The Zoom portion of the video was done; now time to composite it with the screen recordings. 

For my previous videos, I was able to use iMovie — a more beginner’s editing tool. But because I was going to be combining one video on top of another video, I knew I would need more advanced capabilities, so I got to learn a whole new software — Final Cut.

Final Cut makes it easy to combine two videos together. You started with your base video — in my case, that would be the screen recording of the desktop. And then you layer the other videos on top and resize them to fit within the space on the base video. So, for example, I had recorded just the text document as I typed the “Dear Friend” letter, and I resized that video to fit in the blank text document on the recording of my entire desktop.

The action of the words being typed is actually a separate video overlaid onto the video of the entire desktop.

And I could have done the same for the Zoom scene except … I knew I wanted the browser and the text document to overlap the Zoom window.

The browser window overlaps the Zoom window, so I couldn’t just resize the video of the Zoom meeting. As you see here, it needed to be an L-shape for this section of the film.

So, simply resizing the Zoom video wouldn’t work. Instead I used green screen technology. When I did the screen recording of my desktop, the blank Zoom meeting had a green background. Then when I combined the Zoom recording, I used Final Cut’s keying feature to splice in that recording — the video showed up wherever the green showed.

When I recorded the desktop, the Zoom window was a green screen. Then, I used Final Cut’s keying tool to composite in the Zoom recording.

I also used Final Cut to insert a few sound effects — the doorbell and typing sounds.

The last bit was creating an intro and the credits — also something new for me. Luckily, with the switch to Final Cut, there were a lot of built-in templates for me to use.

The final video was complete! Now to share it with the world.

Exporting and sharing

I knew I would be primarily sharing via Facebook and so the final video size couldn’t be too large. Luckily, Final Cut has an export option optimized for Facebook:

The “YouTube & Facebook” option exports the video as a lower-resolution SD version, but with a small enough file size that it’s easy to upload to social media.

I also exported a higher resolution master file and used that to upload to YouTube.

And here’s the final video:

I learned a lot of new technical skills and got more practice as a director. Now, on to the next video project!

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