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.

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#11 Why ‘Motion Stills’ is a cool tool for fast micro-storytelling on both Android & iOS — 1. April 2018

#11 Why ‘Motion Stills’ is a cool tool for fast micro-storytelling on both Android & iOS

Back in 2016 Google made an iOS-exlusive app (weird, ain’t it?!) called Motion Stills. It focused on working with Apple’s newly introduced ‘Live Photos’ for the iPhone 6s. When you shoot a ‘Live Photo’, 1.5 seconds of video (with a low frame rate mind you) and audio before and after pressing the shutter button is recorded. You can think of it as a GIF with sound. What Motion Stills does is that it lets you record, stabilize, loop, speed-up and/or combine ‘Live Photos’. In 2017, Google finally brought the app to Android. Now while some Android phone makers have introduced ‘Live Photo’-like equivalents, there’s no general Android equivalent as such yet and because of that the app works slightly different on Android. Instead of ‘Live Photos’ you can shoot video clips with a maximum duration of 3 seconds (this also goes for pre-6s iPhones on iOS). There are also other shooting modes (Fast Forward, AR Mode) that are not limited to the 3 seconds but for this post I want to concentrate on the main mode Motion Still.

When I first looked at the app, I didn’t really find it very useful. Recording 3-second-clips in a weird vertical format of 1080×1440 (720×960 on iOS)? A revamped Vine without the attached community? Some days later however I realized that Motion Stills actually could be an interesting and easy-to-use visual micro-storytelling tool, especially for teaching core elements of visual storytelling. The main reasons why I think it’s useful are:

a) it’s a single app for both shooting and editing (and it’s free!)
b) the process of adding clips to a storyboard is super-easy and intuitive and
c) being forced to shoot only a maximum of 3 seconds let’s you concentrate on the essentials of a shot

So here’s a quick run-through of a possible scenario of how one might use the app for a quick story or say story-teaser: When covering a certain topic / location / object etc. you take a bunch of different 3-second-shots with Motion Stills (wide shot, close-up, detail etc. – 5-shot-rule anyone?) by pressing the record button. It might be good to include some sort of motion into at least some shots, either by shooting something where you already have motion because people or objects are moving or by moving the smartphone camera itself (‚dolly‘ shot, pan, tilt) when there is no intrinsic motion. Otherwise it might look a little bit too much like a stills slide show. Don’t worry too much about stabilization because Motion Stills automatically applies a stabilization effect afterwards and even without that, you might just be able to pull off a fairly stable shot for three seconds. After you have taken a bunch of shots, head over to the app’s internal gallery (bottom left corner on Android, swipe up on iOS) where all your recordings are saved and browse through the clips (they auto-play). If you tap a clip you can edit it in a couple of ways: You can turn off stabilization, mute the clip, apply a back-and-forth loop effect or speed it up. On iOS, you can also apply a motion tracking title (hope the Android version will get this feature soon as well!) What you can’t do is trim the clip. But you actually don’t have to go into edit mode at all if you’re happy with your clips as they are, you can create your story right from the gallery. And here’s the cool thing about that: Evoking a shade of Tinder, you can quickly add a clip to your project storyboard (which will appear at the bottom) by swiping a clip to the right or delete a clip from the gallery by swiping it to the left. If you want to rearrange clips in the storyboard, just long-press them and move them to the left or the right. If you want to delete a clip from the storyboard, long-press and drag it towards the center of the screen, a remove option will appear. In a certain way Google’s Motion Stills could be compared to Apple’s really good and more feature-rich Apple Clips app when it comes to creating a micro-story on the go really fast with a single app – but Apple Clips is – of course – only available for iOS.  When you are finished putting together your micro-story in Motion Stills, you can play it back by tapping the play button and save/share it by tapping the share button. Once you get the hang of it, this is truly fast and intuitive – you can assemble a series of shots in no time.

That being said, there are a couple of limitations and shortcomings that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Obviously, thanks to the 3-second-limit per clip, the app isn’t really useful for interviewing people or any other kind of monologue/dialogue scenario. You might fit in some one liners or exclamations but that’s about it. It’s also a bit unfortunate that the app doesn’t apply some kind of automatic audio-transition between the clips. If you listen to the end result with the sound on, you will often notice rather unpleasant jumps/cracks in the audio at the edit points. While you could argue that because of the format content will only be used for social media purposes where people often just watch stuff without sound and will not care much about the audio anyway, I still think this should be an added feature. But let’s get back to the format: While you have the option to export as a GIF if you are only exporting one clip, the end result of a series of clips (which is the use case I’m focusing on here) is an mp4 (mov on iOS) video file with the rather awkward resolution of 1080 by 1440 (Android) or 720 by 960 (iOS) – a 3:4 aspect ratio. This means that it will only be useful for social media platforms but hey, why ‚only‘, isn’t social media everything these days?! Another thing that might be regarded as a shortcoming or not is the fact that (at least on Android) you are pretty much boxed in with the app. You can’t import stuff and clips also don’t auto-save to the OS’s general Gallery (you will have to export clips manually for that). But is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so because a good part of the fun is doing everything with a single app: shooting, editing, exporting/publishing. So let’s finish this with an actual shortcoming: While the app is available for Android, it’s not compatible with certain devices – mostly low-end devices / mid-rangers with rather weak chipsets. And even if you can install it, some not-so-powerful devices like the Nokia 5 or Honor 6A (both rocking a Snapdragon 430) tend to struggle with the app when performing certain tasks. This doesn’t mean the app always runs a 100% stable on flagships – I also ran into the occasional glitch while using it on a Samsung S7 and an iPhone 6. Still, the app is free, so at least check it out, it can really be a lot of fun and useful to do/learn visual (micro) storytelling! Download it on GooglePlay (Android devices) or the Apple App Store (Apple devices).

P.S.: Note that you can only work on one project at a time and don’t clear the app from your app cache before finishing/exporting it – otherwise the project (not the recorded clips) will be lost!
P.P.S.: Turn off the watermark in the settings!