smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore) — 25. June 2020

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore)

As I pointed out in one of my very first blog posts here (in German), smartphone videography still comes with a whole bunch of limitations (although some of them are slowly but surely going away or have at least been mitigated). Yet one central aspect of the fascinating philosophy behind phoneography (that’s the term I now prefer for referring to content creation with smartphones in general) has always been one of “can do” instead of “can’t do” despite the shortcomings. The spirit of overcoming obvious obstacles, going the extra mile to get something done, trailblazing new forms of storytelling despite not having all the bells and whistles of a whole multi-device or multi-person production environment seems to be a key factor. With this in mind I always found it a bit irritating and slightly “treacherous” to this philosophy when people proclaimed that video editing apps without the ability to have a second video track in the editing timeline are not suitable for storytelling. “YOU HAVE TO HAVE A VIDEO EDITOR WITH AT LEAST TWO VIDEO TRACKS!” Bam! If you are just starting out creating your first videos you might easily be discouraged if you hear such a statement from a seasoned video producer. Now let me just make one thing clear before digging a little deeper: I’m not saying having two (or multiple) video tracks in a video editing app as opposed to just one isn’t useful. It most definitely is. It enables you to do things you can’t or can’t easily do otherwise. However, and I can’t stress this enough, it is by no means a prerequisite for phoneography storytelling – in my very humble opinion, that is. 

I can see why someone would support the idea of having two video tracks as being a must for creating certain types of videography work. For instance it could be based on the traditional concept of a news report or documentary featuring one or more persons talking (most often as part of an interview) and you don’t want to have the person talking occupying the frame all the time but still keep the statement going. This can help in many ways: On a very basic level, it can work as a means for visual variety to reduce the amount of “talking heads” air time. It might also help to cover up some unwanted visual distraction like when another person stops to look at the interviewee or the camera. But it can also exemplify something that the person is talking about, creating a meaningful connection. If you are interviewing the director of a theater piece who talks about the upcoming premiere you could insert a short clip showing the theater building from the outside, a clip of a poster announcing the premiere or a clip of actors playing a scene during the rehearsal while the director is still talking. The way you do it is by adding the so-called “b-roll” clip as a layer to the primary clip in the timeline of the editing app (usually muting the audio of the b-roll or at least reducing the volume). Without a second video track it can be difficult or even impossible to pull off this mix of video from one clip with the audio from another. But let’s stop here for a moment: Is this really the ONLY legitimate way to tell a story? Sure, as I just pointed out, it does have merit and can be a helpful tool – but I strongly believe that it’s also possible to tell a good story without this “trick” – and therefore without the need for a second video track. Here are some ideas:

WYSIWYH Style

Most of us have probably come across the strange acronym WYSIWYG: “What you see is what you get” – it’s a concept from computational UI design where it means that the preview you are getting in a (text/website/CMS) editor will very much resemble the way things actually look after creating/publishing. If you want a word to appear bold in your text and it’s bold after marking it in the editor, this is WYSIWYG. If you have to punch in code like <b>bold</b>  into your text editing interface to make the published end result bold, that’s not WYSIWYG. So I dare to steal this bizarre acronym in a slightly altered version and context: WYSIWYH – “What you see is what you hear” – meaning that your video clips always have the original sound. So in the case of an interview like described before, using a video editing app with only one video track, you would either present the interview in one piece (if it’s not very long) or cut it into smaller chunks with “b-roll” footage in between rather than overlaid (if you don’t want the questions included). Sure, it will look or feel a bit different, not “traditional”, but is that bad? Can’t it still be a good video story? One fairly technical problem we might encounter here is getting smooth audio transitions between clips when the audio levels of the two clips are very different. Video editing apps usually don’t have audio-only cross-fades (WHY is that, I ask!) and a cross-fade involving both audio AND video might not be the preferred transition of choice as most of the time you want to use a plain cut. There are ways to work around this however or just accept it as a stylistic choice for this way of storytelling. 

One-Shot Method

Another very interesting way that results in a much easier edit without the need for a second video track (if any at all) but includes more pre-planning in advance for a shoot is the one-shot approach. In contrast to what many one-man-band video journalists do (using a tripod with a static camera), this means you need to be an active camera operator at the same time to catch different visual aspects of the scene. This probably also calls for some sort of stabilization solution like phone-internal OIS/EIS, a rig, a gimbal or at least a steady hand and some practice. Journalist Kai Rüsberg has been an advocate of this style and collected some good tips here (blog post is in German but Google Translate should help you getting the gist). As a matter of fact, there’s even a small selection of noticeable feature films created in such a (risky) manner, among them “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Viktoria” (2015). One other thing we need to take into consideration is that if there’s any kind of asking questions involved, the interviewer’s voice will be “on air” so the audio should be good enough for this as well. I personally think that this style can be (if done right!) quite fascinating and more visually immersive than an edited package with static separate shots but it poses some challenges and might not be suited for everybody and every job/situation. Still, doing something like that might just expand your storytelling capabilities by trying something different. A one-track video editing app will suffice to add some text, titles, narration, fade in/out etc.

Shediting

A unique almagam of a traditional multi-clip approach and the one-shot method is a technique I called “shediting” in an earlier blog post. This involves a certain feature that is present in many native and some 3rd party camera apps: By pausing the recording instead of stopping it in between shots, you can cram a whole bunch of different shots into a single clip. Just like with one-shot, this can save you lots of time in the edit (sometimes things need to go really fast!) but requires more elaborate planning and comes with a certain risk. It also usually means that everything needs to be filmed within a very compact time frame and one location/area because in most cases you can’t close the app or have the phone go to sleep without actually stopping the recording. Nonetheless, I find this to be an extremely underrated and widely unknown “hack” to piece together a package on the go! Do yourself a favor and try to tell a short video story that way!

Voice-Over

A way to tackle rough audio transitions (or bad/challenging sound in general) while also creating a sense of continuity between clips is to use a voice-over narration in post production, most mobile editors offer this option directly within the app and even if you happen to come across one that doesn’t (or like Videoshop, hides it behind a paywall) you can easily record a voice-over in a separate audio recording app and import the audio to your video editor although it’s a bit more of a hassle if you need to redo it when the timing isn’t quite right. One example could be splicing your interview into several clips in the timeline and add “b-roll” footage with a voice-over in between. Of course you should see to it that the voice-over is somewhat meaningful and not just redundant information or is giving away the gist / key argument of an upcoming statement of the interviewee. You could however build/rephrase an actual question into the voice-over. Instead of having the original question “What challenges did you experience during the rehearsal process?” in the footage, you record a voice-over saying “During the rehearsal process director XY faced several challenges both on and off the stage…” for the insert clip followed by the director’s answer to the question. It might also help in such a situation to let the voice-over already begin at the end of the previous clip and flow into the subsequent one to cover up an obvious change in the ambient sound of the different clips. Of course, depending on the footage, the story and situation, this might not always work perfectly.

Text/Titles

Finally, with more and more media content being consumed muted on smartphones “on the go” in public, one can also think about having text and titles as an important narrative tool, particularly if there’s no interview involved (of course a subtitled interview would also be just fine!). This only works however if your editing app has an adequate title tool, nothing too fancy but at least covering the basics like control over fonts, size, position, color etc. (looking at you, iMovie for iOS!). Unlike adding a second video track, titles don’t tax the processor very much so even ultra-budget phones will be able to handle it.

Now, do you still remember the second part of this article’s title, the one in parentheses? I have just gone into lengths to explain why I think it’s not always necessary to use a video editing app with at least two video tracks to create a video story with your phone, so why would I now be saying that after all it doesn’t really matter that much anymore? Well, if you look back a whole bunch of years (say around 2013/2014) when the phoneography movement really started to gather momentum, the idea of having two video tracks in a video editing app was not only a theoretical question for app developers, thinking about how advanced they WANTED their app to be. It was also very much a plain technical consideration, particularly for Android where the processing power of devices ranged from quite weak to quite powerful. Processing multiple video streams in HD resolution simultaneously was no small feat at the time for a mobile processor, to a small degree this might even still be true today. This meant that not only was there a (very) limited selection of video editing apps with the ability to handle more than just one video track at the same time, but even when an app like KineMaster or PowerDirector generally supported the use of multiple video tracks, this feature was only available for certain devices, excluding phones and tablets with very basic processors that weren’t up to the task. Now this has very much changed over the last years with SoCs (System-on-a-chip) becoming more and more powerful, at least when it comes to handling video footage in FHD 1080p resolution as opposed to UHD/4K! Sure, I bet there’s still a handful of (old) budget Android devices out there that can’t handle two tracks of HD video in an editing app but mostly, having the ability to use at least two video tracks is not really tied to technical restraints anymore – if the app developers want their app to have multi-track editing then they should be able to integrate that. And you can definitely see that an increasing number of video editing apps have (added) this feature – one that’s really good, cross-platform and free without watermark is VN which I wrote about in an earlier article.

So, despite having argued that two video tracks in an editing app is not an absolute prerequisite for producing a good video story on your phone, the fact that nowadays many apps and basically all devices support this feature very much reduces the potential conflict that could arise from such an opinion. I do hope however that the mindset of the phoneography movement continues to be one of “can do” instead of “can’t do”, exploring new ways of storytelling, not just producing traditional formats with new “non-traditional” devices.

As usual, feel free to drop a comment or get in touch on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog, consider signing up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming.

#24 Why Telegram is the best messenger app for mobile video production — 7. June 2020

#24 Why Telegram is the best messenger app for mobile video production

Ever since smartphones and mobile internet became a thing, messenger apps have grown immensely in popularity and significantly curbed other types of (digital) communication like SMS/texts, eMails and heck yes, phone calls, for most of us. There’s also little doubt about which messenger apps can usually be found on everyone’s phone: WhatsApp is by far the most popular app of its kind on a global scale with only Facebook Messenger being somewhat close in terms of users. Sure, if you look at certain regions/countries or age groups you will find other prominent messenger apps like WeChat in China, KakaoTalk in Korea, Viber in the Ukraine or Snapchat among the younger generation(s). We have also seen a noticeable rise in the popularity of security and data conscious alternatives like the Edward Snowden-recommended Signal or Switzerland-based Threema. One might say that right in between mass popularity and special focus groups sits Telegram.

Telegram started out in 2013, founded by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pawel Durow who had already created “Russia’s Facebook”, VK. While it was able to avoid being seen as “the Kremlin messenger”, its claims of providing an experience that is very strong in terms of security and data protection have received some flak from experts. It also came into questionable spotlight as the preferred modus communicandi of the so-called “Islamic State” and other extremist groups that want to avoid scrutiny from intelligence agencies. But this is just some general context and everyone can decide for herself/himself what to make of it.

The reason for this article has nothing to do with the aforementioned “historical” context but looks only at the app’s potentially useful functionality when it comes to media production, particularly video production. People are sending enormous amounts of video these days via their messenger apps. For reasons benefitting the sender/receiver as well as the app service provider itself, those videos are usually compressed, both in terms of resolution and bitrate. The compression results in smaller file sizes which lets you send/receive them faster, use up less storage space and avoid burning through too much mobile data. This works pretty well when all you do is watch the video in your messenger app, it’s far from ideal however if you want to work with the video somebody sent you.

While there is a way to prevent the app from automatically compressing your video by sending/attaching it not as a video (which is the usual way of doing it) but as a file (as you would normally add a doc or pdf), the file size limit of most messenger apps is so small that it’s not really suitable for sending video files that are longer than one minute. WhatsApp has a current file size limit of 100MB and so does Signal. Threema tops out at 50MB for sending files uncompressed while Facebook Messenger gives you a measly 25MB! Just for measure: a moderate bitrate of 16Mbit/s for a FHD 1920×1080 video will reach the 100MB limit at only 50 seconds. In this regard, Telegram is basically lightyears ahead of the competition as it lets you send uncompressed files up to 2 GB (around 2000 MB), yes you heard that right! 

Choose “File” and then “Gallery” (or another option if that’s where your media is located) to send a video in full quality without compression.

To send an uncompressed video file within Telegram, tap on the paper clip icon in a chat, select “File” (NOT “Gallery”) and then “Gallery. To send images without compression” (or choose one of the other options if your video file is located somewhere else on the device). It’s that easy! There’s also a cool way to use Telegram as your personal unlimited cloud storage: If you open the app’s menu (tapping on the three lines in the top left corner) you will find an option that says “Saved Messages”. This is basically your own personal space within the app where you can collect all kinds of material like notes, links or files. As long as the file doesn’t exceed 2 GB, you can upload it into this “self chat” like you would in a regular cloud storage service like Dropbox, GoogleDrive or OneDrive. And believe it or not, you currently get UNLIMITED storage for free! I think there’s a chance that Telegram might cap this at some point in the future if people start using it too excessively but up until then, this is a pretty amazing feature most users don’t know about (even I didn’t until a few days ago!).

Telegram gives you unlimited cloud storage, each file you upload can be up to 2 GB in size.

This benefit gets even more powerful when you consider that you can use Telegram across several devices (it’s not only available for Android, iOS and Windows 10 Mobile but also has desktop apps for Windows and MacOS!) with the same account, something you can’t do with other messengers like WhatsApp which ties you to a single mobile device for active use of one account. A side note though: If you have someone send you a big uncompressed video file over mobile data, you might want to tell the other person that it will cut into their mobile data significantly. So if possible, they should send it when logged into a WiFi network.

In-app video editor of Telegram.

And even if your goal is actually to compress a video when sending it, Telegram gives you the best choices to do so. When selecting a video via the Gallery button (instead of the File button) you can adjust the resolution of the clip by using the app’s recently updated in-app video editor. After marking your clip of choice by tapping on the empty circle in the top right corner of the video’s thumbnail, tap on the thumbnail itself to open the video editor. You will be able to trim the clip or add a drawing/text/sticker (brush icon). You can even do some basic color correction (sliders icon), I kid you not! And you can adjust the video resolution by tapping on the gear icon in the bottom left corner of the tool box. By moving the slider you can choose between FHD 1920×1080, HD 1280×720, SD 854×480 and what I will call “LD” (low definition) 480×270.

If your primary focus when using messenger apps is most comprehensive security / data protection or mass compatibility and you don’t need to use the app as a tool for direct (video) file transfer, then you might still prefer Signal, Threema or WhatsApp respectively. Otherwise Telegram is a powerful tool with best-in-class features for a professional video production workflow. 

So despite the fact that Telegram is still far from being as ubiquitous as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, it has significantly increased its user base in the last months and years (currently over half a billion installs from the Google Play Store!) and chances are getting better that the person sending video to you is using it or has at least installed it on her/his phone.

Questions and comments are welcome, either below in the comment section or on Twitter @smartfilming. I also just created my own Telegram channel which you can join here: https://t.me/smartfilming.

Download Telegram for Android on the Google Play Store.

Download Telegram for iOS on the Apple AppStore.

Download Telegram for Windows 10 Mobile / WindowsPhone on the Microsoft Store.

#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro — 12. May 2020

#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro

Filmic Pro might be called the “Gold Standard” for highly advanced mobile video recording apps on both Android and iOS, it surely is the most popular and widely known one. Even Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has used it to shoot two of his feature films. The fact that a powerful rival has just recently launched is bigger news for Android users though than for those on iOS. There are a couple of very capable alternatives to Filmic Pro on iOS including Mavis, MoviePro and Moment Pro Camera. While options are available on Android as well they are not as numerous and/or complete and for quite a few development has either ceased completely (Cinema FV-5 and recently Moment Pro Camera) or for the most part been reduced to bug fixes or minor compatibility adjustments (Cinema 4K, Lumio Cam, ProShot). There’s also the solid free Open Camera (plus a whole range of variants based on its open source code) and the pretty good Footej Camera 2 but none of them can really match Filmic Pro when it comes to usability and advanced features. That is until now.

Only two weeks ago, an app called Protake – Mobile Cinema Camera popped up in the Google Play Store (and also the Apple App Store). The screenshots looked quite promising and after downloading it and taking it for a quick spin I can confirm that there’s now another immensely powerful mobile video recording app available for both Android and iOS. Protake gives you full manual control over exposure (shutter speed/angle and ISO), focus and white balance, you get support for external mics and a visual audio level meter plus the ability to adjust input gain, a whole set of exposure and focus assistants (zebra, false color, focus peaking, waveform monitor, RGB parade, histogram), different aspect ratios (including different widescreen formats and square but apparently skipping 9:16 vertical), frame rates (incl. 25fps, but not 50/60 on any of my devices – but that might be different for other phones), resolutions, bitrates (they don’t go as high as Filmic Pro’s though), codecs (H.264/H.265), color profiles/looks etc.. You even have an interesting option called “Frame Drop Notice” which I have never seen anywhere else before and some useful one-tap quick buttons for hiding the UI or switching between maximum screen brightness and current brightness. There’s also support for external accessories like Zhiyun gimbals, anamorphic lenses or a DOF adapter. All in all, it’s a feature range almost as complete as FilmicPro’s and the UI is slick and intuitive. 

There is however one catch: While you can download the app for free and also use the auto mode to record, you can only activate recording for the pro mode (including manual controls and most advanced features) by buying a subscription. The subscription model has become a common practice for many apps in the last years (particularly for video editing apps) but so far I hadn’t really encountered it in a camera app. The subscription price is 10.99 Euros (9.99 US-Dollars) per year which is somewhat moderate compared to other apps (if you break it down it’s less than 1 Euro per month) but as I said, it’s new for this kind of app (at least to me!) so it might need a bit getting used to. It should be noted that the current price is a 50% off offer so the regular price would actually be double, venturing into financial territory not too many of us might be willing to follow. There’s another thing to keep in mind which probably isn’t of any relevance to most users but definitely to someone like me with a whole zoo of different phones: The subscription will only let you use the pro mode on three different devices at the same time. So if you want to use it on more than three I suppose you will need to buy a second subscription. This should however be a very rare use case.

One last thing: If you are on Android, please note that most features of the pro mode (like setting specific values for shutter speed and ISO) are only available if your Android device fully supports Camera2 API, which lets apps of 3rd party developers access the more advanced functionality of the phone’s camera. If Camera2 API support hasn’t been implemented properly by the maker of the phone, 3rd party apps can’t access certain features no matter how capable their developers are. As a rule of thumb, relatively current flagship phones and midrangers usually have sufficient Camera2 API support, entry level phones only sometimes. If you want to learn more about the topic, check out this older blog post by me.

Let me know what you think of Protake! Either here in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

Download “Protake” for Android on the Google Play Store
Download “Protake” for iOS (iPhone/iPad) on the Apple App Store

#22 Visualizing audio on Android – finally a very good app? — 9. May 2020

#22 Visualizing audio on Android – finally a very good app?

While I’m personally not that much involved in the production of pure audio / radio content, I have noticed that there has been increasing demand for a way to make audio stand out more in social networks that primarily address the eye. There are some web tools like Headliner, Audiogram or Auphonic and the relatively popular iOS-only app Wizibel that basically take an audio file, generate a visual waveform animation based on it and create an mp4 video file as the end product which is easily shareable on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. Usually you can also add a still image or text to spice it up. Some call this type of audio visualization an “audiogram” and I think it’s particularly useful for audio teasers (for a podcast for instance) or audio content that is only a couple of minutes long. There have been a few options on Android as well (ChkSnd, Audio Vision for Videomakers, Avee Music Player) but while they weren’t exactly bad, they all had some shortcomings. A couple of days ago however I stumbled upon a very promising app that’s relatively new (it was released November 2019): Visualization Video Maker.

After spending a couple of days with the app, I’m sure this one’s a keeper – it’s the best I have encountered on Android so far. It has a good, clean and easy to use UI but still a lot of options to customize the look of your audiogram. The basic workflow is very simple: You start with a given spectrum, then choose your audio file and optionally add a background photo/graphic/text. That’s about it. Of course you can dig a bit deeper and customize different aspects of your video, the app’s UI makes it very intuitive. You can choose from a set of animated spectrums/spectra (bar, circle, line, texture etc.) and define size, color, position and opacity among other things. There’s also a bunch of options to edit your text or photo. You are even able to change the layering of spectrum, text(s) and additional photos/graphics to decide which one is represented as the top layer. Everyone familiar with the layering of graphical elements like in Photoshop for instance should feel at home. You can also “mute” layers which basically disables them so they are hidden from the preview but still in your layer stack.

The app supports the import of different audio formats/codecs including wav/pcm, mp3 and m4a/aac. However I have found that there seems to be a bug affecting LG devices where you get an error message when trying to use wav files with pcm codec (mp3, m4a/aac on the other hand work just fine). I tested this on an LG V30 and LG Q6. I had no problems with wav files on a whole bunch of other Android devices.

Let’s take a quick look at things that could be improved: 1) The video aspect ratios are limited to 16:9 landscape, I couldn’t find any square or portrait format options. When considering that the app is a great tool to present or tease audio in social networks, more format options would be great to have, particularly a square 1:1. 2) From what I can see the app is lacking proper share integration with other apps via the Android share sheet. Yes, you can pick your audio file through the media browser / audio file system but depending on the recording app you used for recording your audio file, finding these files can be a bit annoying, especially if you have lots of audio files on your device. So it would be great to be able to share the recorded audio file from your recording app of choice directly into VVM. I have tried this with a couple of common Android audio recording apps but never was VVM listed as a target when opening the share sheet so I think the problem is on VVM’s side.

In the export panel you can choose between the following video resolutions for your mp4 file: 1920×1080, 1280×720, 854×480 and 640×360. You can also define a custom video bitrate while the frame rate is automatically 30fps. The audio bitrate of the exported video is 128Kbps (no matter the input), which is pretty ok for sharing on social networks but could still be raised a bit to please the more audiophile crowd. 

VVM is basically free without any kind of watermark but to export your project you have to watch a 30 sec advertisement if the export resolution is 720p or above or the length over 3 minutes. I suppose this is a pretty fair deal. Unfortunately, there are no in-app purchases whatsoever to avoid watching the ad. So even if you are willing to pay, there’s currently no way. It would have been nice to have the option for a one-off purchase of the app which will then let you always go straight to the export.

And here’s a bonus tip: If you use Visualization Video Maker in combination with the app AutoCap you can even get automatic captions for your clip! Just take the exported clip from VVM into AutoCap and let this app do its magic. While AutoCap is free to use as well, you will have to pay to get rid of the watermark here.

Last thing: I just noticed that there’s actually now an Android app version of Headliner (iOS version as well) but so far I wasn’t able to import/upload any audio files. Despite meeting all the requirements (mp3/wav file, under 500MB and under 2 hours length) I always get an error message “File problem. Please make sure your file is a MP3 or WAV, under 500 MB & shorter than 2 hours”. You also need to create an account for the app so VVM definitely looks like the better mobile option to me at this point.

Is this a useful app in your opinion? Do you think ‘audiograms’ are a good thing? Drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

Download “Visualization Video Maker” for Android on Google Play.