If you want to make movies in Second Life, you've come to the right place. Whether it's video tutorials or story-driven machinima, the basic principles are the same. I know your time is short and you want to get started soon — this guide isn't meant to be all-comprehensive, but is intended to smooth your path so you can get up and running quickly.
- 1 How it happens
- 2 Hardware
- 3 Improve your performance
- 4 Software
- 5 Hide the interface!
- 6 Master the camera!
- 7 Wield the power of WindLight!
- 8 Plugins
- 9 What video codec should you use?
- 10 Where should I host my video?
How it happens
Making movies in Second Life usually goes like this. On a suitable computer with the right recording + editing software installed, you:
- Start the recording software.
- Log into Second Life.
- Use the recording app's shortcut (or press a button, but it's slower) to start filming.
- Do what you need to in SL: move your avatar and the camera, direct other avatars, etc.
- Use the record app's shortcut to stop filming.
- Open your footage (usually an .avi or .mov) file in your editing software.
- Edit your movie.
- Render and share your movie: the most common way is to upload it to the Internet.
One of the simplest ways you can do this on Windows is with the free recorder, WeGame:
A video tutorial on this will be coming!
Once you know how, practice will incrementally increase your skills, as it did for me — then you'll come up with your own best trips 'n' tricks to share with others (I hope you do!).
For optimum results, you'll need a high-end computer which exceeds our System Recommendations. The main reason is to capture smooth footage, and since you won't just be running Second Life but recording it at the same time, it's important that your bottlenecks are minimized. For example, this is Torley's current system (as of Sept. 2008). Definitely not the only good configuration and it need not be expensive. If you can't upgrade, a capable PC rig can be built for under US$1,000, and here are some key things to look for:
- Multi-core CPU - As of this writing, see The 2008 PC Builder's Bible for suggestions. Technology keeps moving on so check what's hot on the market, but quad-cores are great for running SL and other apps (like an image editor or video editor) at the same time. If multitasking — doing many things at once on your computer — is a priority to you, be sure to get a multi-core CPU.
- Fast, dual hard drives - You don't want your disk read/write to be throttled. It helps to run SL on one HD while writing to another. If you can afford it, I like Western Digital Raptors — expensive and smaller-capacity but fast. I use a 150 GB one as my main drive, and a general HD as my secondary. (I also have other HDs for archiving.) Some have had great results with RAID systems but they're not required.
- Good graphics card - A fine one can be had for US$100-200 which'll show off all of Second Life's graphical glory at nice framerates. Since pricing in this are can shift even faster than CPUs, go to a deals site like SlickDeals and ask for what's in the "sweet spot".
- SpaceNavigator - Your keyboard + mouse isn't sufficient for tracking cinematic shots. To get creamy motion and use SL's Flycam, a joystick/alternate input device like the SpaceNavigator is highly recommended.
The best way to learn is to do: even if you're not on a powerful system, try capturing footage and editing it anyway.
Improve your performance
General rule: you want your viewer FPS (Frames Per Second) as high as possible so that Second Life appears smooth. Upwards of 15+ FPS is fine, and shooting @ 30 FPS — provided SL is actually running that fast too — is rare, but excellent. Recording a movie will usually impose a slight, if noticeable performance hit, so it really helps to have a very high FPS to begin with. After all, once you've captured footage, you can always trim it down, but can't interpolate extra frames (although there are tools that can help salvage your takes if you have no other choice).
Now then — performance tips for your everyday Second Life are also smart to apply when making movies. Here are some things you can do now:
- Open View menu > Statistics Bar and look towards the top, where it says Basic, then FPS underneath. This is your viewer FPS.
- Quit other resource-intensive programs on your computer, because they'll slow SL down too. Including programs that also access the hard drive — don't have a big file copy running in the background while recording, give SL as much focus and attention as you can.
- Learn Edit menu > Preferences > Graphics tab inside and out. Which leads us to...
One of the best pieces of advice I can give you: tweak settings while watching FPS. Observe before/after differences. This is how you tell what needs to be adjusted.
- In the Graphics tab, click Custom checkbox. It shows all the options you can fine-tune. Some of these make a bigger difference than others, but this is like the primary control panel for your viewer performance.
- Change the size of your SL window to boost FPS and ease capture rate. Check "Run Second Life in a window". I usually record at 1024x768, which is a good balance. If you want additional window sizes available at a snap, try Sizer — it's a snappy little utility.
- If you're shooting scenes in different locations, you may have to adjust settings to optimize filming at each place. You may want to take note of those settings, should you need to recreate them later.
- Long Draw Distance is one of the biggest performance hits. You can turn it way up (256+ m) if you want to film an epic panorama, but more intimate scenes don't need it. Note that we have an under-the-hood feature called culling, which works behind the scenes and automatically doesn't render stuff if you can't see it at all. So if you're in a totally enclosed cave, what's outside the cave won't render.
- Unless you've got very high FPS and need to shoot scenes that show lots of water (e.g., an avatar flying above the surface of a lake), uncheck Water Reflections or limit Reflection Detail. Water Reflections set to Everything is substantially taxing, and especially in very dense scenes (lots of prims), will slow you down a lot.
- Especially for crowd scenes, you may want to turn Avatar Impostors on! They'll lack some detail and appear slightly blocky, but if you record at higher resolutions and scale down playback later, this is a robust way to maximize FPS on slower systems. If you want avatars to be impostors (like 2D sprites) at nearer distances, increasing performance more, move Avatars Mesh Detail slider towards the left.
- Conversely, be context-smart: if you want an an avatar to run into the distance and retain their full form and motion, set Avatar Impostors off.
- On lower-end systems, you either won't have or can disable Atmospheric Shaders. I don't generally recommend this, because Atmospheric Shaders (also known as "WindLight", keep reading) adds a lot of, well, atmosphere and environmental richness to a scene. Turning it off looks dull.
As listed on the Machinima page, there are many options. I encourage seeking out what fits your needs, and after trying many of the Windows apps, here's what I prefer and why:
- TechSmith Camtasia - The best app I've found for recording instructional screencasts/video tutorials yet. Records just about anything, not just SL. It can highlight the cursor and clicks, which is useful for pointing out stuff, and you can change between codecs too — important to get a good quality/filesize balance. I use the DivX codec inworld, because it captures much faster than the default "lossless" one. If you're curious, I've written up more details on my Camtasia settings.
- FRAPS - By far the most popular choice of SL machinima artists. Doesn't record standard Windows apps and has some trouble capturing cursors (the special click action ones), and doesn't allow codec change so files will be good-looking but big. Pretty straightforward to use, and since it's already pretty common, finding help is easy.
- WeGame - Pressed for money? Get cheap 'n' cheerful! WeGame is free, and is also the easiest way to upload from SL to an embedded Flash video on the web. Quality is somewhat grainy and audio may have weird clicks/artifacts, but if you're in a rush to dive in, this is a great choice!
Video-editing programs are commonly known as NLEs, or Non-Linear Editors. This is because in contrast to their earlier counterparts, like physical celluloid-splicing, you can experiment in any order you please without making permanent mistakes. This helps your creative flow and lets you play with possibilities.
Wikipedia has a comparison of video editing software. New Mac and Windows systems both include free solutions: iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, respectively. They're fine to wade your feet in, as I did with WMM many moons ago.
At the more advanced end of the scale are the likes of Adobe Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas, and Final Cut Pro. And higher still are syutes so astronomical in their material cost that it's impractical for me to mention them here — those who have the means will seek them out.
Since I'm primarily PC-based, I prefer Sony Vegas for a number of reasons, one being its similarity to audio sequencing (which I have extensive background in). That makes it (you guessed it) really suitable for making music videos and syncing to sound. It's so easy to use, and I got started in hours. (This is the first movie I made with it!) I also love the snap-to-grid (which makes aligning elements a cinch for compulsive people like me), effects chains (which can easily be saved and recalled), and easy automation curves. Vegas is somewhat limited plugin wise, but the cost — specifically, the Platinum Pro Pack version — is a great deal. You can find it for under US$100, and there are also rebates for the various Vegas versions, making the deal even sweeter. I know cost is often a barrier.
Important: make sure your video editor can read your recorded files! Lower-end ones only support a limited range. In some cases, you'll need to install a codec pack for compatibility.
Hide the interface!
Must-know! Remove all the UI chrome-clutter so that you record the world unfettered as-is. If you're doing a vidtut, you'll likely want to keep the UI on, but when desired, Advanced menu > Rendering > Features > UI. Here it is in action:
Master the camera!
If you're going to make movies in Second Life, you need to know how to use the camera! Don't go further until you're comfortable with View menu > Camera Controls and the camera shortcuts (e.g., hold Alt key and drag the left mouse button to zoom). Like this:
In analogue film, the camera has been likened to an important actor in its own right: low angles rising upwards can add suspense, continuous shots without cuts (like in Magnolia and Children of Men) can contribute to the heightened intensity of a film. Even simple pans-and-zooms like the Ken Burns effect make static scenes that much more interesting.
Here are some very practical tips:
Change camera zoom time
Great for tracking slowly across scenes, like a wide field.
FollowCam for better camera angles
Get your free copy here. FollowCam adds unique motion to your shots which'll make you stand out, since so many people use the default camera and don't change the settings. Definitely an underrated feature.
Show your avatar in Mouselook
Useful if you want to do something, say, from your character's perspective.
Wield the power of WindLight!
WindLight is the codename of Second Life's atmospheric rendering technology. By using it, you can change how sky & water, affecting the tint, tone, and nuance of just about everything within a scene. Yes, it's that influential, which is why no aspiring filmmaker should be without it. For example, it's generally a bad idea to do a building tutorial in the dark, but midnight madness is just the right thing if you're filming a clip about when monsters attack!
Changing sky & water are as easy as clicking buttons and moving sliders. You'll see changes live, allowing you to "paint the world" in seconds. By understanding "the language of WindLight" and the many possibilities, you'll be able to control how your environment looks and create productions which are more polished, professional, and plainly awesome.
FREE presets pack!
Want an easy way to get started with 100+ sky & water settings? Click here to get them! My pack has "looks" suitable for many movie styles, from adventure to romance to horror.
Turn off classic clouds
You can control whether the "old-skool" clouds will appear or not.
Make a dramatic fake moon
This is a cool trick to make the sun look like a stylized, graphic novel-esque lunar body.
Make a disaster movie sky
In just a few slider moves, you can go from the normal sunset to a smoky orange haze fit for your apocalypse movie — but feel free to repurpose this for your art!
Plugins are add-ons which extend the functionality of your video editing program. They can add new transitions, graphical effects, new export formats, and more. Most have specialist purposes and are made by small companies. If you're already familiar with Photoshop plugins, the concept is similar, but applied to motion pictures. Some video editing apps also support audio plugins to remove noise, boost volumes, make you sound like a robot, etc.
Plugins for specific hosts:
- Adobe Premiere - Adobe's own listing.
- Sony Vegas - Page is messy and somewhat outdated.
- Final Cut Pro - Laid out neatly.
While I haven't found a really elegant video plugin database, there are resources like the Creative COW forums which are worth a browse.
NewBlueFX has neat and practical effects, and check out their bundle prices. Their website has broken links (which Torley told them about), so be careful.
If you're looking for video tutorials on special effects, VideoCopilot.net is the way to go — Andrew Kramer and friends have amassed an arsenal of great tips 'n' tricks, and they also have their own plugins for Adobe After Effects (often used with Adobe Premiere and other "production pipelines" to add post-processing) and some other hosts.
For audio plugins, the best source is KVR Audio.
What video codec should you use?
There are many possible choices, some better than others. Torley likes mid-size H.264 MP4s multi-pass encoded with QuickTime. See more details. Some sites (like Vimeo) have their own recommendations of accepted formats, so investigate out the specifics.
Where should I host my video?
There are many video-sharing sites out there. The process usually goes like this:
- Login (sign up for an account if you don't have one yet).
- Click an Upload button.
- Fill in the required detail and upload.
- Wait a few minutes (or hours for longer videos), and it appears on the site.
- Embed the video into your blog or website, or share the link with friends.
As obvious as water is wet, use what's best for your needs, but if you're curious what Torley prefers and why, here's an uber-quick summary:
- Vimeo is elegant and generally has the best quality.
- blip.tv is pretty good too, and has a batch uploader.
- YouTube has lousy quality, but the broadest reach.
- WeGame is the easiest to record-in-SL-and-upload.
Caution: Vimeo and blip.tv don't allow raw gameplay footage, but have providence for machinima (apparently, as defined in Wikipedia). Meanwhile, Wegame is all about game footage. Read site policies to avoid nasty surprises!