Making of the Halloween Costume 2014 Video (and why I need one project a year)

January 22, 2015
Strange man stands inside Crayola box

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you know that every year I make a Halloween costume from large pieces of cardboard. It's a calling card. You can see all the previous ones I’ve done here.

What’s different from previous years, is that this time I created a companion time-lapse video showing the making of the costume. I have made one previously, but this year, rather than using one stationary shot, I decided to make a video with multiple angles, much better editing, and a far quicker pace.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s some required material to view before reading on. Here’s what-in-the-hell I’m talking about from here on out:

Music as Character

A few weeks prior to starting this project, my best friend, Ivan Reese, and I went to a conference in Montréal called Çingleton. The conference brings together some of the brightest minds in the Apple developer ecosystem.

One talk was given by Adam Lisagor, the creator of Sandwich Video. His company creates product promotional videos, usually for startups with new services or apps. And their usually pretty hilarious.​

Here’s one I watch every couple of weeks when I need a laugh:

One of the points that stuck out in Adam’s talk was using music as character. We have a colourful news anchor introducing the product, but the bass violin also acts as character in the two-minute video. It has a presence of its own, being the nimble voice of classy playfulness alongside the staunchy human newsteller. Lisagor could have chosen a style of music typically found on local news shows.

NearlyEveryLocalNewsShow, apparently. 

But the stringed instrument used here is a far more interesting character than the prime-time cacophony of trumpets trying to invade your cochlea every weekday at 6:00 PM on Channel 13.

So when I began brainstorming my Halloween video, I started with choosing the music. Choosing the character. And luckily, my conference companion, Ivan, plays almost every instrument constructed by civilized man since 1544 A.D. His musical moniker is “Spiral Ganglion”, and you should check some of it out, if you’re into the weird and psychedelic (or if you want to know what kind of music gets created when somebody does LSD for an entire weekend in a house fondly called "Supermoon Mansion"):

Even without an accompanying video, “Quadrate Honey”, is a character. I did listen to other songs I could possibly use, but this led the pack far-and-away. Plus, what better way to pay homage to my friend (who happened to be getting married the same week I was creating this video)?

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Once I knew I wanted to use “Quadrate Honey”, I listened to it constantly. I can’t emphasize this enough: for about a week straight, this was the only song I listened to.

When I came home at night, I would turn off all the lights, expect for a tiny glow from the dimmer-switched light I own. Wearing earphones, I would stroll around my room and try to envision the shots that I would take while building the costume. I would lay at strange angles on the floor, bend my neck in positions not recommended by chiropractors, and stand dangerously perched on flimsy IKEA chairs while imagining shots I could record from above. Then I'd ask questions, such as:

  • the first 10 seconds would be the intro: how could I have opening credits match to the music?
  • the first minute build-up: as the tension rises in the song, what actions should be performed on the costume? How much cardboard-cutting? Painting? Schematics?
  • can I make the 1:16 mark (the wall of sound that gets pummelled on you) dramatic? Can there be a reveal?
  • what is the ideal time the song should end with the video?

Not only was this phase incredibly inspiring, it’s a form of planning your shots. While I jotted my notes, I would storyboard specific shots and draw camera angles I wanted.

Camera

I own a relatively nice video camera: a Panasonic DVX-100 that I bought seven years ago. I’ve shot a lot of video on that camera and I brought it with me when I moved to Montréal.

But there’s two problems with this camera: it doesn’t shoot time-lapse and it only shoots in standard definition.

Well, guess what, dear reader? This video was shot entirely on my iPhone 5. And it shoots time-lapse and in high-definition, which still boggles my mind (granted, the lens on my DVX-100 is fantastic and I don’t think smartphone lenses will ever match traditional camera equipment).

Time-Lapse Software

A few weeks before starting this project, iOS 8 was released, which included a new video option to record time-lapses. Perfect! Just what I need.

But after coming across this blog post, I found out how it actually handles the video. The iOS 8 implementation does not offer any control with frame rate. Yes, this makes it simpler and will satisfy the vast majority of users, but I needed precise control.

And so the company that wrote this blog post just happens to sell an iOS app for the control I needed. Clever buggers, I gotta say.

The app is called Frameographer. You can buy it on the App Store for $5.

Calculating Framerate

As mentioned before, opposed to the default iOS 8 camera, you can control the frame rate with Frameographer. Why is this important? Well, some tasks in this video took a very short amount of time, such as drawing the schematics of the costume. In this instance, if you want the final clip to last 5 seconds, you need to calculate roughly how long the activity will take.

OK, here's where shit gets slightly technical. Grab a notebook, a pen, and start paying attention, asshole...

There are 30 frames per second in standard video. Therefore, if you captured a frame every second, one minute (60 seconds) of real time would equal two seconds in the final video. If you took a frame every two seconds, you would get one second of final video (30 frames). And if you took a frame every five seconds, you would get 12 frames of video (or, 0.4 seconds of video). And so on...

And this is what the interface for Frameographer looks like. Incredibly simple: just shoot the interval to which you want a frame to be captured:

Here’s the gist: if an action takes a short amount of time, you should record with a higher frame rate (a photo captured every one or two seconds). If the action you’re doing takes a longer amount of time, such as painting the word ‘crayons’ as precisely as possible, you’d want a lower frame rate (such as every 5 or 10 seconds).

Does this sound difficult? Yeah, that's because it is. A good time lapse video needs preparation. This is where listening to a song on repeat and creating storyboards really helps. The more knowledge you have of what you want your final output to be, the easier the setup is.

But… You Can Cheat

Because I knew I only had once chance to record each of the actions performed on the costume, I played it safe: for a lot of the time, I was recording at a high frame rate. I did this because I knew I could take the high frame rate video, and remove frames in my video editing sofware. Basically, I could take a photo every two seconds, then if I saw the clip was running too long/slowly, I could speed up the video to the desired length (modern video editing software handles this easily. If you want to have a fun evening by yourself, read this).

Whereas, if the opposite had occurred: if I recorded at a lower frame rate, there’s no way I could make the clip longer (without it looking ugly). The frames were just not captured. Lost forever only to be retained in my brain as a memory, and not as a video the public can enjoy. What a pity.

Mounting the Camera

How did I get those overhead shots? Well, luckily, I have a lightbulb attached to a wire right over my work area. By removing the bulb and creating a very precarious cardboard holder for my multi-hundred dollar device, I could record my work.

This is fucking dangerous. And kind of stupid.

An iPhone costs at least $500 (you only think it costs $200 because of the subsidy you pay each month to your cell phone provider: let it be known that the device in your pocket costs almost as much as your laptop).

The words 'precarious' and 'five hundred dollars' should never be in the same sentence.

I heartily admit I don't live dangerously, but in this instance I did. In the future, I’d probably get a dedicated holder/tripod. And the company that makes Frameographer? They sell one.

Note: they aren’t paying me to hawk their fine products. They just seem like legit folks.

Monitoring Myself

So I’ve dangerously propped my very expensive smartphone seven feet above my head. Great.

Now how do I know if I’m in focus or in the frame while I’m creating the costume? That’s where another key piece of software comes in: Reflector.

Before mounting the camera to my homebrew overhead holder, I would AirPlay mirror and be able to monitor if I was in frame or not. Very handy.

I’ve created a family friendly video demonstrating how this works. I’ve recorded my screen (using Screenflow). What is shown on the screen is exactly what is shown on my iPhone screen while having the Frameographer app open (with a little delay, but this wasn’t an issue while creating the costume video; it was only a useful reference).

Once again, there’s no second chances while creating these costumes, unless I want to forge more cardboard (which I do not want to do). This mirroring really helps.

Exporting and Editing

After you've captured your clip in Frameographer, you can export the footage to your Camera Roll. You can edit and add music to the clip within the app, but that's reserved for simpler projects, I think. Handy, but not for me.

To transfer the footage to your computer, you might be tempted to send it via iMessage to your own account, as I first did. But I found that iMessage compresses the footage from the native 1080p down to 720p. I either recommend plugging your iPhone into your Mac and importing via Image Capture, or send it to Dropbox. Both will import the file in its native 1080p resolution.

Typically, you would shoot all your footage and then edit your footage down. But for this project, because I already had an idea of what the final product would look like, I was editing while I was creating it. This gave me an idea if I was on the right track.

Originally, I thought the video would be roughly half the length of what it turned out to be. Once I had imported some footage and began editing it down, I found it made more sense to expand it. 

Normally you don’t get this chance. I’m glad I did on this one.

I edited in Final Cut Pro 7 and exported using Compressor.

Release

I had hoped to get this out October 31st, but I had to pull an all-nighter to get the costume finished. By the grace of my superiors at my job (Phéromone), they were OK with the fact I got nothing done that day.

They’re good people and I’m glad we found each other.

A few days after Halloween, I released the video. If I do something similar for future years, I'd really like to have the costume and video to be ready on October 31st. I think it has a more dramatic effect. And speaking of drama...

And Now That Part of the Blog Post Where the Author gets Uncharacteristically Emotional 

I remember getting out of the shower one day in March 2014 and thinking to myself, “IronJerkRevolt: all things are temporary. Be aware of the fact that for this brief moment of time, you feel happy. Focus on the air rushing in and out of your nostrils. Enjoy this time."

And I did enjoy it.

And I'll be honest: the first half of 2014 was probably some of the greatest days of my life. And a considerable chunk of 2013 as well. With no ounce of hyperbole, have I ever been so happy and content with life, and I think I’m going to treasure those days for a very long time.

But then in the second half of 2014, a lot of things turned to shit. Very suddenly. Day turned into night with no beautiful sunset to bridge the gap. A bunch of unfortunate events happened at once, and I drifted back into my old habits and the same scary thoughts that made me move to Montréal in the first place.

I’m not trying to be dramatic here, either. I can honestly say that I have not been the person I aspire to be for the last six months.

“Trevor, you fool. Why are you bringing this up?"

Good question. What does this have to do with me making a Halloween costume?

I’ve known this for quite some time, but it came more into focus this past six months: my personal level of happiness is partially dependent on my accomplishments and the things I've produced. Maybe that’s not a good judgement of internal character, but that’s how the chemicals in my brain work right now.

And when I look back at a year gone by, I look at all the projects that failed, never got started, or the ones that I began and quit half-way through. And oh-sweet-Jesus, those are numerous and ever-present in my mind.

But for whatever reasons, each and every year, I am able to start and finish my Halloween costumes. Maybe it's the power of tradition? But whatever it is, everything else gets tossed aside for a week or two and that yearly project always gets done. At least once a year, I can look back and have pride in something I've created. It's a yard-stick of personal quality I can always depend on.

I’m the type of person that needs that. And luckily, I’ve carved out a personal niche that forces me to do that (and which I get a great amount of pleasure creating).

Do you feel that too? That a year will go by and you think to yourself that you have nothing to be proud of? I'm probably one of the last people you should take advice from (especially at this moment in time), but finding some annual "thing" that you're proud of and that people look forward to can keep you going.

Because I know I need that.