10 Creative Budget DIY Production Effects, Tips & Tricks

More and more YouTubers are tossing their videocameras for HD-SLR cameras, and producing film-like quality. Here are free low-budget tips to create a film effects and other special-effects… without expensive equipment or professional experience.

How can we provide film-like effects and special effects using modestly priced gear? For instance:

    • What are the best ways to shoot video using a digital SLR camera, and make it look like cinema film?
    • What $2 item in your kitchen provides a perfect way to keep your camera still in a car?
    • How can a pet’s home let you shoot underwater, using your existing camera without an expensive add-on?
    • When can a painter’s tool get you a crane/jib shot?
    • How can you make a person vanish or defy gravity by crawling on a wall?
    • What’s the easiest way to clone yourself in a video?
Keep your hard-earned money, and try some of these free or low-budget hacks, tricks and effects

Today we’ll look at some of these do-it-yourself (DIY) poor-man techniques, and see example videos are provided (most links advance to the effect’s precise moment in the video to save you time). Tomorrow I’ll provide a collection of 10 free websites and tutorials about creating a film/cinematic look using a fairly inexpensive digital camera.

But first… a quick tip on selecting a killer $500-$1000 videocamera that will produce footage you could barely get from a $5,000 to $10,000 just years ago. The solution for film-like quality in your videos is a cost-effective ($500-$1000) HDSLR video camera. Click here to see three pro ~$1000 compared (Sony vs Panasonic vs Canon).

Your HD-SLR can give you near-film quality with some of these tips.

Many YouTubers and quasi-professional video creators are using traditional SLR cameras as their primary videocamera. Sxephil, for instance, was using a Canon 5D when he showed how he establishes his home studio. Now that the video quality rivals many high-end video cameras, we’re able to enjoy the beautiful effect that decent SLR lenses provide — like that depth-of-field look you see in WheezyWaiter and MysteryGuitarMan videos. Let’s call these HDSLRs.

With help from a variety of sources (Videomaker, Amazon, B&H, PCMag, Cnet and the cameras used by top YouTubers) I’ve compiled some of the winners on this Amazon videocamera store, and it’s an affiliate program that makes me almost nothing except when stalkerofnalts told me he was buying expensive new gear, and let me generate Amazon affiliate links for his products). At least I can provide people with this link when they ask for my advice.

Now back to the poor-man effects. There’s a lot more to professional-looking video than a decent camera, and some of the most important factors are lighting, camera movements, audio and a really good lense. That being said, the latest issue of Videomaker (Sept. 2011) has an article by Kyle Cassidy titled “Home Grown Video Gear.” The same author wrote a nice piece last year titled “Making Your Video Look More Like Film.” The top-three tips are thanks to Kyle.

Now the Top-10 Creative Budget DIY (do it yourself) Production Tips and Tricks to Create Film-Like Special Effects

A bag of rice makes a nice car tripod

1. Very Steady Car Tripod Using Bag of Rice: I do a lot of video vlogs, and I find a bunched-up shirt works as well as any fancy device. It keeps the camera from sliding and falling over, and it’s also easy to adjust (just scrunch more shirt under the front to tilt the camera up). Kyle’s technique is even better. A bag of rice! Isn’t that brilliant? It’s easy to adjust, can work well on the window to keep your camera steady on a zoom, and it might even buffer some of the shake from the car.

Brilliant. A fish tank as underwater camera case.

2. Underwater Housing With Partially-Immersed Fish Tank: Turn your existing camera into an underwater one without the fancy, cost-prohibitive custom-housings. Simply use a small fish tank that’s partially immersed in the water. Now you’ve got the ability to adjust the camera (focus, zoom, turn on and off) and it stays dry. Brilliant! Kyle suggests covering it with a towel to avoid flashes, and I’d recommend putting it on top of something like that rice bag below it. Then if a careless move causes the tank to go under, you’ve got the camera away before the tank fills.

3. Jib or Crane Shot Using Telescoping Painter’s Pole. I’ve used a pool net to produce a camera-in-sky and sweeping horizontal “crane” effect (see a 5-year-old flying Charlie in Super Baby). Brushing the camera above and through branches provides a breezy feel. I also mounted the video camera on a flag pole for Google Maps Butt crack (approaching 1 million views). I even attached a Flipcam to a bunch of helium balloons (see video, and behind-the-scenes). This would have been a lot easier once I purchased my super-light car-key hidden camera, but the quality is rather poor. But Kyle suggests a telescoping painter’s pole, which range from $5 to $90 for a telescoping one (see Home Depot). I just picked up this inexpensive telescoping pole from Amazon for $20 and change (free shipping since I’m on Prime). While on a motorcycle, we got some nice footage using a tripod as a crane.

The web is packed with homemade dolly devices. Smooth is key.

4. Hello, Do-It-Yourself Dolly: A gently moving horizontal-slide of a camera (slider, dolly) can create a powerful effect (see example), especially when there are objects near and far to show perspective. While drooling over the $800 Cinevate Atlas 10 FLT, I went about searching for homemade Dolly tracks. I once bought a steadicam that worked pretty well, and was constructed with weights and plumbing equipment. Courtesy of LifeHacker, I found a guy with a how-to video on Veoh where J.G. Pasterjack created a dolly with skateboard wheels, and it can run on a flat surface or along a 2-by-4 board. Knowing I’d burn too much time and probably screw it up, I asked to be on his waiting list. He’s since created MoveYourCameraCheap.com, and is having trouble keeping up with demand on eBay.

5. Disappear or Defy Gravity With Wall-Decorated Floor: Your floor makes a good wall, can give the effect that people, objects or pets are climbing on the wall. See “lovey” the kitten crawling up a door, which was laid on the ground. This 2006 “Gravity Wall” video with my kids is a bit more obvious. To disappear, a) mount a camera perfectly still on a tripod or surface, b) simply shoot the background/setting alone and be sure lighting doesn’t change noticeably, c) videotape yourself (or person/object you wish to vanish), then d) use a “dissolve” effect when editing between the two clips (which diminishes subtle changes in the video). For instance, I provided a shock ending that made it look like a garbage truck ran over me inside a garbage can — seen in this fairly popolar “Garbage Can Prank” video.  I used it in one of my first kid videos (Katie turned invisible in this video shot maybe 5 years ago and uploaded in April) and more recently in this Dr. Who sponsored video, with some added glow via Iggy35.

A poster or inexpensive table cloth works as a green screen

6. Poor-Man’s Green Screen: Green screen allows you to replace a plain green background with a video or photo of your choosing. There are two ways to create a cheap green screen. First, you can use green posters or a dollar-store plastic table cloth. Second, you can use a painted wall that’s close to green. Most video-editing software with “green screen” functionality can “knock out” a background even if it’s not pure green. You just want to: a) ensure that you’re not wearing any colors that are close, b) light the wall separately to avoid shadows, and c) avoid wrinkles or seams that will invariably catch shadows. I have a cloth green screen, but that’s because I use green-screen to make it appear that I fall down steps. Cloth is critical to that effect.

7. Clone Yourself With Matte Effect: The Matte effect, where you overlay a portion of one video over another, is somewhat painstaking. But it can give you the ability to hire the cheapest support cast you’ll find: yourself. Here I cloned myself by shooting two scenes of myself and overlaying the clean Nalts over a video of my clone surfacing from mud. It’s something that requires a higher-end editing tool like Final Cut Express… but worth it.

8. Get Nutty and Grosse: If you’re not inclined to use special-effect software, here are some how-to homemade special effects that require little knowledge or effort (MightyCouch). The knife-tossing how-to is especially good, and you can even simulate the knife landing precariously by tying it into a string and pulling it away… then playing that clip backwards. Here’s a how-to video that shows more gory special effect tricks, including a bloody explosion using a condom full of fake blood.

9. Sundry Techniques for Leveling Camera, Hiding Wires & Creating Soft Effect: Kipkay is a prolific video creator that shares many of his production tricks and hacks, and this rapid fire “volume one” video is loaded with clever Magiver-like techniques. KipKay’s second Howcast video provides some less sexy but handy tips — such as using bread clips to mark cables.

10. Set your HDSLR to Resemble Film: Lastly and most importantly, there are a load of ways to get your HDSLR to give you a film-like quality… there’s even a book devoted to the subject (DSLR Cinema), which is on my wishlist. I’ve embedded a fantastic instructional video by Drumat5280 who has other videos like “DSLR settings.” He jokes that he’s an expert because he and his wife watch videos weekly. The important items include avoiding zoom, setting your camera to highest resolution (1080i) or higher, mic carefully, and set camera to 24 frames per second (which creates the film look and smaller file size). He encourages you to use a “shallow depth of field” which encourages viewer to focus on that which your camera focuses.  VideoUniversity has a nice piece on little nuggets like avoiding auto-white balance and any setting that is called an “enhancement” (which is almost as bad as the cursed “digital zooms,” which pixelate the video by cropping only a portion of the screen). And Techwaffle has a how-to video that shows you how to auto-focus and use your computer to control your camera (at least with the Canon 5D).

What’d a miss? Any tips you’ve learned and are willing to share? Even little things help — like how to use a laptop as a tele-prompt (something discussed in the valuable Videomaker forum). Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Film Riot, a Revision3 show that is loaded with amateur-ready tips that produce very cool and otherwise-costly effects. Check it out.

Flip Cam Alternative in JVC Picsio?

A month ago while on vacation in Florida I discovered I had forgotten my Canon HV30. I panicked.

I searched my laptop case (a giant man purse) for a Flip cam to hold me over. Note how easy it is to say “flip cam” instead of “small video camera.” No luck. On a trip to Best Buy I look at the Flips, but I continue to be frustrated by Flip’s price rigidity. Instead of bringing any legacy model close to the $100 point (I’m the guy that would own five of them for that price), they keep adding features and pushing past the $200. At $200 it’s a rival to larger but much better $300-$500 cameras. At $100 (or even $150) it’s an impulse buy and almost disposable.

Having been duped by Sylvania’s “Poor Man’s Flip Cam,” I would not go that route again.

So I tried out the JVC Picsio because of a significant sale ($150 if I recall, off a $199 ARP) and the super strong endorsement from the Best Buy dude. Not Billy this time. I was in Florida.

A worthy competitor to Flip in my book, but not according to Amazon raters...

Pros:

  • As small as Flip, but I believe the picture quality is as good or better. You can go 720 or 1080, and in good lighting it looks like a $500 camera.
  • I was afraid the JVC Picsio wouldn’t play nicely with my Mac, and I’d need software to convert. Surprisingly the files were .mov files and ready to roll into iMovie.
  • It takes photos and they’re pretty decent. I’ve learned not to get lured by megapixel promises… consider these pretty nice for a discount video camera ($150 would get you far more in a digital still camera).
  • You can find the price online even lower (see Amazon).
  • It’s very small and goes in the pocket easily. We took some cool swamp footage I can’t remember if I posted! Wait- I didn’t, did I?
  • I like to toggle between photo and video camera easily. It confuses the victim, however.

Cons:

  • It got slammed on Amazon’s reviews, so I wouldn’t have purchased it had I known that. But my experience wasn’t as severe as theirs.
  • No USB plug: you’d be surprised how that seemingly trivial miss can be so frustrating.
  • The playback sound (camera’s speaker) it almost inaudible. Like the Flip, no external mics welcome. Indoors without ambience, it did well. Cars not so much.
  • The power button is hard to use (quite annoying to dig fingernail multiple times to turn off/on), and the navigation is more complex. It began recording in my pocket a few times.
  • Apparently when the battery dies, it’s a paperweight.
  • Some people claim the images are not as steady, but again I was happy with what I got for $150 on an impulse buy.

Would I buy it again? I suppose if I didn’t already own a bunch of Flips (the Hello Kitty one is still my fav), I might have instead sprung for the Flip Mino to give it a try. As I recall, Greg Benson (mediocrefilms) shot this Yearbook parody video with it (amazing). For another $50 or $100 I’d like to see how it compares directly to the JVC Picsio and other portable cameras.

Here’s some footage I shot with it. What do you think?

Bottom Line:

  • I am surprised at Flip’s ability to dominate the market and hold on high prices ala Mac. It’s a great innovation, but I keep expecting for a Canon, JVC, Sony or other manufacturer to come out with a $100 Flip killer. Not yet.
  • As long as Flip keeps innovating (and allowing older models to hit that $100ish level) it may continue to dominate the ultra portable market, and I noticed the bold advertising campaign has continued even post Cisco acquisition. I do wish it would use actual amateur video in its ads instead of the awkwardly over produced simulated amateur clips. Again Flip resembles Mac in its advertising: slick, cool, musical.

P.S. If you Flip peeps wants to loan me the newest (UltraHD or this brushed-steal gen 2 Mino) for a head-to-head trial against the JVC Piscio I’ll gladly take the challenge and return the camera. I’d shoot simultaneous shots of the Flip and JVC (recording in the same conditions at same time), then post them on my daily vlogs on YouTube (unclenalts). Just hit me at kevinnalts at gmail (if I don’t reply immediately, don’t hesitate shooting again).

Make Your YouTube Videos Look Better – Through Compression

rose high resolutionI’ve written many times about compressing videos for YouTube, but it continues to be the most-frequently asked question. Many of the previous articles on this subject assume you can’t upload more than 100 MB files, but YouTube now permits files to be 1 GB (1000 MB). If you’re still uploading 10 MB files (as I used to advise via my iMovie “save as CD-ROM”), then your videos are only 1/100th of the quality they could be. Put another way, they look “like ass.”

And as YouTube’s quality continues to improve, those videos will become painful to watch. For more reasons than one.

There are a number of great sources about video comression, and this is among the best: http://www.squidoo.com/youtuberight. But it’s also a lot of information, so let’s simplify.

It’s not your camera, dude. People always ask me what camera I use, and while that’s part of the equation it’s probably not the issue. Sure a high-end camera will better capture light and images, and you can also use some basic shooting techniques (like white balancing or putting the light source behind you not your subject). But a few of you wrote me that you bought the same camera I use (Canon HV-20) and still don’t have good results. If your videos are unfunny, that’s for another post. But let’s talk today about getting a nice YouTube video quality without fussing over shooting techniques.
It’s all about the compression, baby. YouTube is gonna do some funky things to transform/transcode/compress your video to Flash (streaming flv files), and garbage in means garbage out. So look up your editing software specifications, but here’s the basic settings you need.

The bottom line is that you want to avoid default settings, and select your own compression (you can find this by looking for words like “export,” “save as” or “compression.” In iMovie, for example, it’s “share>quicktime>expert settings>options (before saving).

  1. First, use the H.264 codec, which is the best “mpeg4 codec” currently available.
  2. Export quality in the best setting you can. If there’s a choice (low to high) pick the best.
  3. Your size (aspect ratio) will normally be 640×480. You may want to experiment with higher HD settings but be careful to select “letterbox” if you use wide-screen videos. Otherwise your video will get squished into a dimension it doesn’t belong.
  4. You DO want to de-interlace your video. Interlace no likely. De-interlace your NTSC or PAL source videos, especially if it’s high motion
  5. If you want to get anal, here are some of the other settings you may see:
  • Set rate control to 1-pass Constant Bit Rate (CBR). (So no Variable Bit Rate, no Multipass). YouTube transcoders dig CBR.
  • Set key frames to every 30 frames or less. This impacts file size, so you could go as low as 15.
  • Set data rate to 10,000 kbps or more, depending on the length of your video.
  • Set frame rate to 29.97 or 30 fps.
  • Set audio compression AAC: 44.1 KHz, 128 kbps, 16 bits, stereo.
  • I don’t mess with filters, but you could experiment with contrast or sharpening filters.

The primary goal here is to get close to 1GB (or whatever you can stand uploading) in the best quality available. If you follow these steps, your videos will look better than some professional creators who still aren’t compressing optimally. Butterfly. That word allows you to find this post again when you need it.

If you have a slow Internet setting or are impatient, you can compromise with something 100MB or so. Even at that setting, a 2-3 minute video will look quite good. I know other people that give YouTube an flv file that’s been transcoded, so that YouTube doesn’t have to waste time doing that. In theory their videos appear more quickly. But Nalts aint about learning another damn piece of software.

Finally, two important points about saving video files… you want to have fewer than 12 hard drives (like me) but also ensure you can access clips and re-edit them if necessary.

  1. I always recommend saving the best possible output and then deleting the giant editing-software file unless you think there’s some chance you may need to reedit or rescore. I don’t like ditching my editing-software master because I want to reserve the right to pull the native footage without the music. But a lot of editing software saves a  more of the footage than you realize (so if you upload a 10-minute clip into iMovie but only use 30 seconds, there’s 9:30 of hidden video available if you select “advanced>revert clip to original.” That’s a hard-drive space hogger. So save only what you need.
  2. Another trick for the lazy man. I export from iMovie as “full quality” and then upload that. It takes a while to upload, compress, and appear. But then I save that file and delete the master.

Folks if this post doesn’t help you, then you’re a hopeless cause. I just hope I can find it when I need it. Butterfly.

Avoid Regret Pixelation Hangover When Posting Videos

I’ve lost original video files before, and sometimes even the compressed versions. I’ve had to rip my own video from Revver so that I could own some version, and it’s a horrible pixelation relative to the original file (or even the compressed low-rez version). Now I have a few simple rules to save you from this agony:

1) Whenever you finish a video, export it as a FULL digital file and stick it on a backup drive (they’re down to .20 cents per gig so there’s no excuse here… don’t buy a 1 terabite drive- get a few cheap 500-750 Gigs… it’s a hassle, but the more drives you have the damage one crashed drive will inflict). Then kill the master edit file (too big) unless you think there’s a good chance you’ll have to rescore or condense the video (both are hard when the music becomes smooshed with the audio.

2) Upload the best version you can. It pains me that I was uploading 5-15 meg files (when the max on many sites were 100 megs) because it was easy… I could explort as “CD-ROM” in seconds. As a result, my old videos weren’t even taking advantage as the resolution of that time. Now I always upload larger files so they’ll look good as the potential delivery quality options evolve (YouTube feeding to Comcast or Verizon or AppleTV). Sometimes I even upload the full DV file if it’s within the 1 Gig limit.

3) Use the high-end uploader on TubeMogul (by the way, I don’t make money from TubeMogul but if you’re not using it you’re an idiot. You can upload to all the sites in one swoop. Who cares if nobody finds them on Yahoo Video or the dozen other sites. It’s worth a shot, and it helps you in search engines. The company is my favorite video startup and is always adding new features and tools. Well guess what they now allow you to do!? You can download your video in its native form (I believe). That’s huge. How many times have I ripped my own video because it was the best archive. Now I’ll always be able to at least retrieve the highest version I submitted.