Sunday 30 September 2018

Keith's Cavers in The Search for the Missing Potholer - Part Three

I guess I could be described as a lifelong learner. I enjoy setting myself challenges, acquiring new skills and working outside my comfort zone. I also take pleasure in problem solving. Making videos
satisfies my creative urges, and allows me to experiment with styles, genres and moods. I also bring to my film making my low threshold of boredom which I hope results in my films being unpredictable, watchable and innovative. All of this means that having produced a film of a particular genre, for example a documentary, I don't really want to produce another one the same, well not for a while anyway. So over the 10 years since I started my YouTube channel I have experimented with many different styles and genres - documentaries, music videos, promotional videos, pastiches, drama, comedy, factual, spoofs and even a five part mini cliff-hanger series. I've also incorporated special effects including green-screening and animation.

I bring all of the above to my video making and I like to think that these might be the reasons why my channel has enjoyed a modest amount of success, but perhaps my achilles heel over the years has always been my warped sense of humour which has been variously described as puerile, childish, twisted, weird, and downright embarrassing. So I'm under no illusion that my videos are universally liked.

But I hope this explains why when I was asked to produce the conference opening video for this year's Hidden Earth I wanted to try something different, something really different, completely different from anything I had done before or that had been attempted before.

I know that I could have gone for a safe low risk option and produced a beautifully filmed and narrated caving documentary, but this wasn't for me. As I've said above I'm naturally an innovator and a risk taker. Keith's Cavers fulfilled these urges. The 1 minute 10 second opening/title sequence took weeks of work to get it as close to the original as possible. Everything was timed to the split second, and it required me to develop or hone skills in animation, titling and working with transparent layers.The video sequences had to pastiche the original footage in Charlie's Angels whilst changing the theme from a police academy to caving.

The mini-episode that this opening sequence fronts presented a number of fresh challenges for me to overcome.

1. Telling the story in a very short amount of time
My fellow videographers will know that there aren't usually any time restrictions when producing caving videos for public consumption, but there are those imposed by competition organisers. At the moment this is 10 minutes maximum in the Hidden Earth video salon, although I have heard rumours that this might be cut down for next year's competition. So what often happens is that we produce a shortened version of an existing video for entering in competitions. Cutting down a documentary is difficult enough but it is usually possible to chop out whole sections without upsetting continuity. With a story/drama this is not possible. I had to tell the complete story in about 8 minutes and it was hard at times requiring many difficult decisions on what to cut out and what absolutely had to be left in to make the story work.

2. Working with transparent layers
I had already honed my skills with transparent layers when creating the opening sequence, or so I thought. The scene where Margo, having failed to get though the very tight squeeze and returns to Kay and Jess to spin the yarn that she's actually been to Five Mile Chamber required fantasy scenes to be incorporated in thought bubbles. This 25 second sequence took three evenings of head scratching and experimentation to achieve.

3. Working with actors
Didn't they all do well? I believe they excelled but it's much more difficult filming acted scenes than for example scenes of beautiful cave decorations set to etherial music, or action scenes. I really must publish the outtakes one day.

4. Working with one camera
My films are at the low budget, el cheapo end of cave videography. I do have two cameras - a Panasonic Lumix GX7 and a GoPro Hero 6, but I decided to use just one camera for this video - mainly due to time constants. This required most scenes to be filmed from at least two perspectives and then to cut-in to create interest and pace.

5. Continuity
It was essential to have good continuity for the story to work. This isn't an issue with a number of video genres but it was with this. The scenes were not filmed in order and they were filmed over multiple trips. Maintaining continuity was a nightmare. I couldn't have them covered in mud in an early scene and freshly laundered in a later one.

6. Lighting
I like to think that my use of lighting in my videos is okay-ish. I do like creating mood and drama by effective use of lighting but I will admit that this is not one of my best lit videos. Why? Well most of the video relies on close-up shots because the audience needs to see the actors speaking. So great lighting effects were a casualty of the type of video I had chosen to create.

7. Sound effects and levels
Getting the sound right was the biggest challenge by far. The dialogue had got to be audible and distinguishable when played in the conference hall for the video to have any chance of success. I was in the audience, about half way back, and thankfully I think I got it just about right, but it took countless hours of behind the scenes work. The biggest challenge in this video was recording sound in the cave environment. Caves do not have the best acoustics anyway with lots of echo in the larger spaces. Add into the mix the rustling of cordura caving suits and the horrible scraping sound they produce when rubbing against a cave wall and you will understand why the mixing took so long. Much of the audio was recorded, not on the camera, but on my mobile recording studio - my iPhone. The telephone sequences were mainly recorded in my studio aka the front bedroom on the iPhone using an external iQ5 Zoom microphone. The video utilises a number of audio special effects. The most noticeable is the telephone effect but the voice enhancement effect was also extensively utilised. The final challenge was timing. The scenes were acted out without the actors hearing what was being said on the phone so suitable gaps had to be left and the actors expressions had to match what was being said on the phone - which of course they couldn't hear! Some scenes miraculously worked but in others I have had to slightly re-time the video to match the audio. The re-timing is so subtle that I challenge anyone to spot where in the video it was implemented.

How was it received?

The video was played at the opening ceremony. As I've already said the dialogue seemed to be completely audible and the audience laughed in all the right places (or so it seemed), but at the end was complete silence! During the day I talked to several people. I had obviously produced a 'marmite' video. It was loved and hated in roughly equal measures.

I had entered the film in the video salon so I had a couple of days to reflect on whether the judges would love it or hate it. The result was neither. It did reasonably well but not good enough to get an award. Their comments were:
"Good fun film. Care needed with flickering lights. Predictable but end was nice."
"Good fun and audio."
"Good filming, thin comedy."

So the judges were ambivalent to it but what about my YouTube followers? The first comment was:
"Awesomely done, very entertaining. Very nice editing too (I suspect a lot of folk don't realise just how much goes into making something like this)   :o)" This meant a great deal to me because a lot of me did go into making it and getting it as good as possible did became an obsession. For example, at the eleventh hour I spotted in the animated scene change sequence a one pixel wide band that flickered on and off as the yellow caver moved up the screen. I couldn't let it go so another couple of hours was spent re-editing it.
Other comments are:
"Love this"
"Haha well done Keith good video very entertaining"
But my favourite comments are:
"One sec I’m at a rave, next I’m in my bed monging out to this, how did I get here?"
"Dude, that intro is FUNKADELIC MAN!!!!!! YEAHHHHH!!!!"
And my favourite comment of all:
"A superb and very entertaining video Keith 👌.  The world is a much better place, now that we have your angels 😇"

Finally here's the video. What do you think? Do you love it or do you hate it?

Keith Cavers in The Search for the Missing Potholer

Credit Where Credit's Due

Enormous thanks to my stars: Ian, Jess, Kay and Mark, to Brendan for his superb graphics and to Dave and Loz for carrying stuff and holding torches.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Keith's Cavers in The Search for the Missing Potholer - Part Two

In part one I wrote about how the idea for Keith's Cavers was born and how it was key to get the opening credits sequence perfect, but at that stage I didn't have an idea for the video. It was just like being a kid at school who has spent weeks creating the best title page ever for his project but hadn't actually done anything towards the project itself.

So with the opening sequence almost complete it was now time to decide on how to fill the remaining 6 minutes or so. As it was the conference opening video my first idea was to make a video (humorous of course) showing how members of Dudley Caving Club set about preparing for participating in the various Hidden Earth competitions. This was discussed with team members and received universal approval. I'll leave it to your imagination to think of the range of possibilities that were discussed for filming things like sack stuffing, ladder coiling, knot tying and photography. Although it had merit and would have been an excellent theme for the opening video I felt it was too safe an option. It would require very little filming underground and I do think that the majority of a HE opening video should feature subterranean footage.

My second idea was to base it on a caving trip we undertook in 2013 which didn't go quite according to plan. I had always thought that it would make a great video as it involved several incidents and a race against the clock which incidentally later featured as a lyric in The World of Caving. "Will we ever make our callout time?" We had gone to make an attempt on the Prokofiev Series in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu and chickened out at the 'horrible exposed' climb. That left us with time on our hands so we attempted to exit via Swamp Creek where the various incidents occurred. All the way through we were saying to each other how we were pleased that it was a one-way trip as none of us fancied reversing the route we had just come though. Eventually with time running out and not knowing really where we were in the cave, and with the way on looking like an almost impossible traverse across very narrow ledges with a very deep vadose trench below, we decided the only thing to do was to turn back. This led to the race against time and the ladder incident which occurred almost exactly as portrayed in Keith's Cavers. Fans of my videos may remember my five part mini-series, The Dudley, Caving and Cakes where we managed to lose Brendan. I thought we could use the search for Brendan as the basis for the Angel's mission.

Jess is passed the f***ing ladder
It was decided to film this second option, review the footage and then decide if it was going to work or whether it would be better to revert to the first idea. So we set off to South Wales for a day's filming. Definitely the best shot of the day was Kay falling into the 'little puddle'. I'd done this twice before and knew that it was very difficult when coming through the slot head first to stay out of the water which isn't just a little puddle by the way. So I went through feet first with my camera box to get ready for the shot. Kay had watched what I did and started to follow my lead. "No, no, no," I shouted. "You must come through head first!" Obviously there was no guarantee that she would fall into the water quite so spectacularly but sometimes luck is just on yer side, and a moment of pure comedy gold was created. This also got the biggest laugh when the video was premiered at Hidden Earth 2018.
Kay lands in the little puddle
I made an edit of the footage we had taken and sent it off for comment. The overwhelming reaction was that it was okay but nowhere near good enough. Jess made a number of suggestions - cutting bits out that didn't work and re-sequencing the rest. The resulting edit was much better but left us with continuity gaps which would require another visit to South Wales.

We had also got to film the Angels being briefed. This was done one Thursday evening in the windmill. In Charlie's Angels, Bosley hands the Angels a box of chocolates with a large bow on top. I decided that as the video starred Mark this would have to be a cake - a large pink cake. Ian turned up for his role as Boseley, Margo donned on the wig, we set up the room with all of the props (desk, speaker, projector, screen) but when I was ready to begin filming Ian had disappeared. "Where is Ian," I asked.
"He's gone to the toilet," came the reply.
Minutes passed.
"What's he doing in there?"
"Don't know. The usual I expect, but he's taking his time."
Then Ian emerged wearing his best suit and tie. Not only did this make the scene, it also shows just how much support I can count on from my caving colleagues.

Bosley and the cake
I had only got one problem left to solve and that was how to end the video. We discussed this many times at Club meetings and various suggestions were made, some of which would have made much better endings, but would have led to another issue - the video would have been too long. Eventually we decided to use the telephone ending as it was quite short and if the Angel's could pull the right facial expressions then it would make an excellent freeze frame for the closing credits.

The Angels get a call from Brendan
With the opening titles and briefing sequences complete we set off for South Wales again to film the ending and the other scenes that were necessary for continuity. However try as I might there is still one continuity error in the final video. Has anyone spotted it?

I have to thank Mark for scripting and acting the final scene and all three Angels for wallowing in mud. It was exactly what was needed for the scene to work.

In the concluding part of this post I will write about the technical and other aspects of making the video.

Monday 24 September 2018

Keith's Cavers in The Search for the Missing Potholer - Part One

In 2017 at Hidden Earth I won the video salon competition with the opening video.

Hidden Earth 2017 Opening Video
Winning the salon meant that I was asked to produce this year's opening video and this is where my troubles began. The opening videos, or AVs as they are usually called, have been of a consistently and very high standard over all of the years that I have attended Hidden Earth, so I'd got to make something of an equally high quality. No pressure there then. I also set a self-imposed goal - I wanted to try something different, something really different from anything that had gone before. Last year I achieved this by producing a video set to two songs for which I had re-written the lyrics, but what to do this year? I had no idea. After weeks of racking my brain out of the depths of my warped imagination came the idea of creating a homage to Charlie's Angels, the TV series which was broadcast between 1973 and 1981. I liked the idea because the opening credits with the instantly recognisable theme tune and strong voice-over would be immediately recognisable to anyone over a certain age, and let's face it most of the Hidden Earth audience are over that certain age.

The opening credits to the TV show ran for just over a minute and as Hidden Earth opening videos should ideally be between 6 and 8 minutes long it would give me another 5 to 7 minutes to play with. I decided to go ahead with this idea even if I never went on to create a complete video as just creating the credit sequence would be a fun challenge and would require me to learn new video editing skills.

The three Angels were introduced individually by them appearing first as a silhouette on a vividly coloured background which was repeated in various colours and sizes. The largest silhouette then became transparent and grew in size to reveal shots of the character. Finally the iconic silhouette of the three Angels holding guns with a flame background was used for the show's title - CHARLIE'S ANGELS. I pitched my crazy idea to the Dudley members who have been my most loyal supporters and they agreed to indulge me. Also Brendan, whose graphic skills are amazing, agreed to produce the silhouettes.

Charlie's Angels
The next problem to overcome was casting. I needed three angels as well as Bosley of course. Casting two of the Angels was easy as two of my most faithful supporters were Kay and Jess, but would they be up of it? Thankfully they were!  Bosley was easy too. There was only one person for the job - Ian our chairman and fortunately he was also up for it. That only left one Angel to find. It also left me with yet another large dilemma. There was no role for my biggest (get it?) star, Mark, but the problem was quickly solved using a wig and Farah Fawcett-Majors became Margo Chunky-Burkey. Game on.

The opening sequence would only work if I could get the silhouettes produced to a very high standard. Also what could we use to replace the guns. Mark came up with the suggestion of a camera for himself (obviously) and a ladder climb for Kay who would take up the central position. He also came up with the idea of the drill for Jess to hold. Mark took the photos of the Angels one Thursday evening a the Dudley windmill using a massive tripod mounted 30kg camera and about half a dozen radio controlled flashes. He was obviously taking his role as photographer in chief very seriously and was taking the same sort of care and effort that he puts into his professional award winning cave piccies. Nevertheless try as he might he could not eliminate all of the shadows. The pictures were emailed off to Brendan and back came the brilliant silhouettes that appear in the final video as both positives, with the silhouette as a transparent layer, and negatives with the background as the transparent layer. I then looked again at the Charlie's Angels sequence and sod it, I had forgotten to get a photo of Ian. Mark was off jet-setting around the world taking wonderful pictures of caves so I took the picture using my phone and using just the ambient lighting. It turned out to be a great picture with absolutely no shadows - result! Take that Mark Burkey.

Keith's Cavers
Producing the graphic sequences and timing them to the music took several hours but I felt it was worth getting it right. Attention to detail was becoming a bit of an obsession so I also wanted to use the same font for the titles that was used in the original series. I researched via the internet and found it was LesterBold which I downloaded from a font site. I also added my voice-over at this stage. I tried a number of microphones but just couldn't get it to sound right. Eventually I recorded it on my iPhone. At the same time I added the flame effects which I bought online from Pixel Studios. While I was doing all of this we visited Cwmorthin Slate Mine in North Wales and filmed the sequence of Margo not using two cows tails. I will publish the outtakes one day which are hilarious in their own right. Obviously the rock face was not vertical so I had to angle the camera to give the impression of it being vertical and being a complete numpty it took several attempts to get it right. On the first attempt Mark flies off frame left horizontally.

The opening sequence was slowly coming together but I still needed the video clips to add in. I used a number of placeholders and archive clips but the hugging and essential cake sequence weren't filmed until much later.

I sent the partially finished film to Ian, Mark, Jess, Kay and Brendan (my critical friends) for their reactions and it was universally given the green light. I was now confident of completing the opening sequence on time, but that was all I'd got. I now needed a video to go with it, or to make the decision to not use it for the Hidden Earth video and resume head-scratching for another idea, and time was running out.

Saturday 8 September 2018

Hidden Earth 2018 Opening Video

Once again this year I am privileged to have been asked to produce the opening video for Hidden Earth, the UKs National Caving Conference, which will take place at Churchill Academy and Sixth Form, Churchill Green, Churchill, North Somerset, BS25 5QN between 21st and 23rd September.

Here's a short promotional video to get everyone in the mood.