Friday, February 27, 2015

Zoom H1 Automatic Safety Track Adapter

I've always liked the idea of the recording a safety track when recording dialogue. This is the practice of sending your mono mic to one stereo channel, and a slightly lower version of the same mic to another. If your actors yell or otherwise clip the main channel, the safety channel is perfectly useable and saves the audio.

While all (that I know of) XLR recorders have this feature built-in, 1/8" recorders such as the Zoom H1 don't even allow you to individually control both stereo channels, only both at the same time. Even if you can get your mono mic into both channels (using a mono-to-stereo adapter), you can't bring one of them lower than the other. In the past I've worked around this, but it requires a mixer of some kind. What I wanted was an adapter that would automatically drop that second channel about -12db for safety.

I'm an electronics amateur at best and was unsure how to do this, so I poked around on YouTube and came across this video about a DIY attenuator that did just what I was looking for. It sent me in the direction of creating my own cable, even if my wiring ended up a bit different.

I can see a lot of applications for this, a big one being body mics. Putting a mic on a groom is a common practice, but there is no way to monitor his sound once you set him free to get married. The Safety Track Adapter could help set your mind at ease knowing that your chances of recoverable sound are good, even when he gets loud.

The best things about this project is that it's very affordable, looks professional, and only requires beginning soldering skills. This adapter can easily built in an hour if you know your way around a soldering iron. Please let me know how yours turns out and if it helps.

1' male to male stereo audio cable
1/8" (3.5mm) female adapter plug
2 resistors (depends on mic impedance and voltage)
electrical tape

soldering iron
rosin core solder
wire cutters/strippers
"helping hands" device (optional, but you'll want it)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Get the FF Short Film Idea Deck for $5!

 I just stumbled across this, but thought that anyone interested in getting their own Idea Deck would appreciate it. If you go to the Printer's Studio home page (the site that prints and mails the cards) and scroll down to the bottom, there is an invite to submit your email address for a newsletter subscription.

The reward for this action is to get a code good for $10 off your next purchase. This is a great way to get your deck for the very low price of $5. If you really don't want their newsletter, I'm sure you can unsubscribe (or you can use or create an email you don't care about). However you play this, I can't see it as any kind of a loss considering the great price.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Choosing Better Battery Plates

In case you didn't know, I really like Sony NP-F Series batteries. These were first developed for the original Sony camcorder (VX1000) that ushered in the digital revolution with the first firewire port. These batteries have hung around long after the obsolescence of those cameras and are a very common way to power all kinds of stuff using readily available battery plates. I use these batteries to externally power my camera and 7" monitor, but they power all kinds of stuff.

Emm over at Cheesycam recently had an cool post about using the removable plates from cheap NP-F battery chargers as battery plates to power your gear. I like this idea, but after using several forms of plates and chargers, thought I would chime in about what to watch out for when buying these frugal items on sites like Amazon and ebay.

The main issue with some of these plates are the battery posts. These are the contact tabs or pins that rest inside of the battery's positive and negative connections. It's the access point of power that runs the juice from the battery to whatever you have connected to it.

The second issue is the number of plastic tabs that hold the battery to the plate. The cheaper, shorter ones only hold the battery by two points of contact. The better, longer models have four points and a longer base for the battery to rest. The short platforms aren't really an issue if the plate is laid flat, but when vertical, the battery can fall out.

This is the most common type of battery tab found on cheap chargers (item 4). The tabs are a fixed, very flimsy metal that is easily bent, so care should be taken when inserting the battery. The platform is also short which doesn't lend to vertical mounting. Since this is a charger made to plug into the wall, this is a bit precarious, as your battery can fall out if bumped. This is a much bigger issue if you are using the plate mounted on a camera rig.

This is another short charger (item 3), but these fixed pins are a bit better. They are made of a solid piece of metal, but are very short. I can't see them going in very far into the positive and negative power wells of the battery, which means they may easily lose their connection. Like the previous charger, the plate is short and doesn't hold the battery well if mounted vertically.

Things continue to improve with the battery cradle (item 5), which offers a lengthier pin, which springs back when pressed. While the cradle is just as short as the two cheap chargers, it has a locking mechanism that must be released for the battery to be removed. This makes the position of the cradle a non-issue. It also has several mounting options such as a removeable bracket and 1/4-20" self threading knob! This was the initial way I mounted my F970 batteries on the Frugal Cage.

These are the pins found in the LCD charger (item 1). They appear to be made of a better material (brass?) and are also mounted on a spring. The mounting plate is long and holds the entire length of the battery on four tabs. This charger is meant to lay flat (it comes with a power cable instead of a built in plug), but holds the battery securely in any position. It also has an LCD screen which gives you charge percentage and voltage. It's the most expensive item on this list ($25), so I would expect it to be well made and it appears to be so. It's my preferred charger for the Sony NP-F battery series.

This the excellent battery plate found on eBay (item 2). It has everything: long, spring loaded, solid metal pins and a long base with four mounting tabs. It's the best plate I've found (that isn't ridiculous in price) and two of them currently reside on the Frugal Cage.

While I was pretty happy with the plate solutions I have been able to find (the only reason I upgraded from the cradle to the dual plate was stability and battery capacity), the cheap chargers have been a crap shoot. You never know what you're getting, despite the pictures shown. I've had several purchases that were for completely different batteries! Ugh.

Whatever you decide to do, I like the fact that there are lots of options for this very common and useful power source. These batteries are all over the place (I use the clone versions) and can be an affordable way to power your gear for a very long time in the field.  All you have to do is mount them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fake TV Simulator (practical TV effect)

It's always interesting to me how filmmakers can convince (or try to convince) an audience that some off-screen event is happening by what plays out on an actor's face. I'm not just talking about a reaction, but lighting. Simple lighting tricks can make things appear as if they are just out of sight, even if they are not there at all.

A common example of this is a campfire. Your characters are having a conversation around a fire, and you want a consistent flicker of orange light to dance on their faces. Keeping a fire burning at a consistent level for continuity is not just impractical, but downright impossible, and can be unsafe (such as inside a studio). That is when your gaffer employs some kind of gizmo that creates a dancing light effect that can run for hours at the same intensity. You get your "fire" for those closeups without the hassle of dealing with real flames.

Another example is the TV set. Characters watch TV and you see the light from the "show" they are watching play out on their faces. Using a real TV as a light source can be impractical, especially if you need to move it around your set. Again, a tiny gadget comes to the rescue!

I first came across Fake TV (extra bright version here) on a gadget blog and thought it would be perfect for the "TV on the face" effect. It creates a cyclic pattern of light that mimics a televsion signal and, as seen in the video, looks pretty decent. Just put some fake TV sound in post, and the illusion is complete.

This unit is kind of cool in that it not only runs on the included AC power supply, but also my favorite rechargeable batteries, as well as the ubiquitous 9v battery (using a simple adapter). It's cheap and easy to rig on a light stand (see video) and can save some poor crew member from waving a blue gel in front of a light all day.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Write your Script with the Short Film Idea Deck


Writer’s block stinks. I really hate it when I have the seed of a good idea, but can’t seem to flesh it out into anything worth shooting. If only I had a little push to get those creative juices flowing, I might have a chance in getting something written.

When this happened to me recently, I turned to the web for answers. I knew there were creative aids out there in card or dice form that would help with the creative spark. These devices used pictures and/or words that, when chosen at random and linked in a certain way, would form a story or plot with your brain filling in the details.

In my search I found Storyteller Cards and Rory’s Story Cubes. The former was based on a standard deck of face cards and had a cartoon style of artwork that showed various characters and objects, actions and letters to help with your story. The Cubes were pictures only that you would roll and let you form a small narrative based on what came out. There’s even a smartphone app of these Cubes.

I liked these, but wanted something a bit different. I liked the deck of cards idea, but I didn’t like pictures only, as I felt that words can be just as inspirational (or more so) as any image. I also wanted to add my own terms and pictures. It was clear that I wanted to design my own custom deck of cards, so I went looking on the web for a site that would let me do just that. I’m not a graphic artist, so I would like to use provided online tools to create whatever cards (with whatever information) I wanted.

This led me to Printer’s Studio, a site that will let you create a ton of your own custom merch, including card decks. You can create sizes from mini to tarot, putting your design on front and back, all the while doing as little or as much as you want. I opted for the standard size card deck and used one of several templates which provides the face card info (suits, numbers, A, K, Q, J, etc.) while you fill in the rest.

I used the online toolset to label each card with the following:

location - setting of the story
occupation - character job
protagonist goal - mission of lead character
object - something important to the story
twist ending - something crazy at the end
tone / trait - mood of film or character
character verb - feeling of one character toward another
conflict image - background picture that generates drama

I also put this list on the two jokers, just in case it’s not obvious what each of the terms mean. Since the text is over a different picture on each card, I had to change the color to be more readable. One thing the PS tools did not let me do was add a drop shadow or outline to text, which I really wanted to help the terms stand out. This is probably the largest drawback of the PS toolset.

You can preview what every single card looks like, by going to my PS store and clicking on the card image. If you wanted, you could just write down all the card info on a cheap deck with a permanent marker (which I did at first), but the finished deck is much nicer.

Once I was done, Printer’s Studio did the rest. I paid less than $9 plus shipping to have my custom deck printed and shipped to my house. If you do a web search (or on the PS site itself), you can find a $5 off any order coupon which should take care of that pesky shipping charge.

I was pretty impressed with the quality of the final product. Design issues aside, the card stock was nice and the images and text looked pretty sharp. It looks and feels like a real card deck. I’ve never done this before, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I can’t say I’m disappointed.

Using the deck is simple. Shuffle, pick what it is you’re looking for and draw! Use whatever information comes up to fill in the blank. I tried to be vague with my terms, requiring you to flesh them out. I just run down the list given on the joker, only I do the character occupation as many times as I need to fill out my cast, which is normally two or three. If you don’t know how many people are in your story, draw and use the number on the card, with maybe a three character limit.

To use the “character verb” feature you simply say, “Character 1 wants... (draw the card, read character verb) ...Character 2“. An example would be Bob wants (draw) “to destroy” Steve, while Steve wants (draw) “to escape” Bob. You get the idea.

The “conflict images” (courtesy morgueFile) can help devise an added threat to your story, or the main conflict itself. One card features a hand in a cast. Was it an accident? Did someone do this on purpose? Was the cast used as a weapon? Is this a real or fake injury? You could even use the images alone to form your story.

Then there is the face card information. The suits could represent seasons, compass points, or anything in sets of four. The numbers could be used to select a random number of characters (as shown above), units of time, days until the ransom is due, etc. You can use the red/black color as yes/no, on/off, or male/female.

There are no set rules here. The Short Film Idea Deck is there to help you get your story up and running. It’s totally open-ended and you can use as much or as little as you want. You can take the info and use it in your own deck or system, or get this exact deck for yourself. I thought it was a kind of a fun idea that you might enjoy as well.

If you do purchase one of these, I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know what you think will make the deck better and more useful. This also has gaming potential (aside from the fact you can play any face card game) and I’m interested in that angle as well.

Please comment below so others can hear your opinion and chime in with their own ideas and thoughts about The Frugal Filmmaker Short Film Idea Deck. Take that nasty writer’s block!


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