Making movies

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Torley's Guide to Making Movies!

Important: Be sure to see our snapshot and machinima policy and satisfy all of our licensing requirements!
Note: Last revised by Torley for Second Life 1.20 — feel free to improve this page and add your own helpful notes!

Friendly greetings! Torley, Resident Enlightenment Manager @ Linden Lab here. If you want to make movies in Second Life, you've come to the right place.

I once was new to all this, and learned many tips 'n' tricks over the years I've distilled for your convenience. 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.

Contents

How it happens

Making movies in Second Life usually goes like this. On a suitable computer with the right recording + editing software installed, you:

  1. Start the recording software.
  2. Log into Second Life.
  3. Use the recording app's shortcut (or press a button, but it's slower) to start filming.
  4. Do what you need to in SL: move your avatar and the camera, direct other avatars, etc.
  5. Use the record app's shortcut to stop filming.
  6. Open your footage (usually an .avi or .mov) file in your editing software.
  7. Edit your movie.
  8. 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 a free recorder like XFire or WeGame:

I use Techsmith Camtasia and Sony Vegas to make my vidtuts. Learn all about how Torley makes video tutorials! And you can also learn more about the technical details behind our lovely, VodPod-powered video tutorial player @ http://secondlife.com/video

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!).

Hardware

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). 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...

Graphics Preferences

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.

Managing Screen Real Estate

Stuff to do: This section contributed by Dalinian Bing. Please revise style.


Here’s a tip for folks running multiple actor alts, to make best use of your monitor screen’s full area: when you’ve discovered a screen layout you like, capture it and set it as your desktop background picture.

An example of a six-window desktop background picture (click through to access 1920 x 1200 px original)

As with many tips, it's best illustrated by a working example, and although the illustration is on Mac OS X, it's also usable on a Windows or Linux computer.

I’m using four actor alts, each running in his/her own instance of Second Life (as described in Running Multiple Viewers), recording at 1280 x 720 px HD 16:9 widescreen resolution on a 1920 x 1200 px screen, and using voice synthesis – so my desktop background picture shows six windows and looks like this:

  • main recording SL window is upper right
  • three other actors are in equal sized small SL windows on the left
  • Text to Speech System Preferences control panel is lower right (for switching between synthesised voices)
  • dialogue script is below the main recording SL window, partially overlapping the Text to Speech control panel

To begin a new recording session requiring all four actors (and to help minimise the performance drag noted in Running Multiple Viewers), I...

  • re-log into the computer (to ensure an uncluttered RAM)
  • for each of the six windows in turn, I...
    • open the window
    • resize and position it over the appropriate area in the desktop background picture
    • minimise it (because minimised windows degrade performance minimally)

Then I only maximise the windows I need at any one time to get a task done (since having all six windows open reduces performance to snail-in-treacle levels ;-)

To make the desktop background picture, I...

  1. got all six windows aligned and invoked my video capture app
  2. captured the whole screen image to the clipboard (OS X: ctrl+shift+cmd+3 ; Windows: PrintScreen key)
  3. used a graphics app to replace the menu bar with a solid colour, aqua (so the translucent OS X Menu Bar shows up nicely)
  4. saved the image as a JPEG file
  5. used the Desktop control panel to set it as the desktop background picture, in 'Fit to Screen' mode

Software

Recording

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 (30-day trial, US$299) - 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 (US$37) - By far the most popular choice of SL machinima artists. Doesn't record standard Windows apps and has some trouble capturing cursors (like 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.
  • XFire (free) - Wish I knew about this earlier. Similar to WeGame but also has social functionality (e.g., send messages to people who play other games). Recording quality is excellent, among the best I've seen — you've got to see it capture at full-res! Also, encode & upload time is quicker than WeGame. Looks like it's a relatively undiscovered gem for Second Lifers. As of 2008-10-14, I'm gaining hands-on experience with this, and my wife is videoblogging.
  • WeGame (free) - WeGame is one of the easiest ways 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 good choice!

On the Mac side, I've had good results with iShowU and ScreenFlow — both are easy to use, but I don't have enough experience to make a solid recommendation.

Editing

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 suites 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.

More essentials

  • View menu > Zoom In and Out can increase interest, e.g., stretched-out shots that look like a twisted dream.
  • Understanding Flycam is a must: the SpaceNavigator PE is a superb, affordable way to get smooth tracking shots and attain much greater control over the camera than keyboard and mouse. Torley loves his, and has used it in action-packed movies like:

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!

Avatar movement

Animations & gestures

Avatar body language adds a lot to the realism (or surrealism) of a scene. You should be familiar with Animation Overriders and how to go beyond the default animations, because having unique emotes will give you an edge above generic presets. The defaults are also somewhat exaggerated and cartoony, so for a more naturalistic repertoire, you'll want to check out what's hot on the market, including motion-capture (mocap) anims. Learn more about gestures.

Handy tip: Map your gestures to hotkeys. For example, you could press F11 to trigger a dance anim — great when there's "action on the set" and you need to coordinate with other actors. It's even more useful when you have the user interface hidden (as described above) and are filming.

Here's a video tutorial showing how you can change your speech gestures, which can be used with lip-sync:

Lip-sync

One longtime challenge machinima-makers (machinamakers?) have had is how to make avatar lips move convincingly in time with speech.

In Second Life 1.20 and newer, there's a rudimentary lip-sync feature which is easy to use. It's not very accurate, however. Learn more and see a video demo.

For greater accuracy, there are 3rd-party tools, and CrazyTalk is a popular commercial product with a time-limited trial. You can watch featured Second Life clips on their website to gain a better understanding. One downside is the extra work needed to composite the background and your avatar in the foreground — since it relies on face morph targets, it's difficult to do things like have your avatar moving lips while falling down backwards.

You could use a combo of these two tools and match shots to get the best results.

Props & sets

The bulk of this goes beyond the scope of this guide; any content you create or buy in Second Life can be shown in your movie — respect content creators' rights. I recommend you enjoy more info on how to make and use stuff, topics which are further covered in my video tutorials.

Tips:

  • If you're shooting on-set and need some props, it may save you time to search the Second Life Marketplace. Unless the goods aren't available there, I prefer shopping online to teleporting around inworld, since that can be time-consuming, and you may also be juggling a variety of other things. (And it's pretty cool to have stuff delivered to me remotely by clicking a "Buy" button on the web!)
  • Check permissions beforehand. If you're buying props to distribute to actors, make sure they're transferable. It sucks when you buy a dozen soda cans and they're all copiable, but NO-trans! "Permissions" also applies to land permissions. If you're filming on a friend's land, make sure you can rez stuff, and if you're not in the land's group, that autoreturn is OFF.
  • Keep your Inventory organized. Obvious, but I know (or hear of) so many inventories that are a massive disaster. Inventory organization isn't the easier and can be boring, but spending a few minutes a day will add up. You may find this harsh, but:
  1. If I don't know what something is, I put it in a folder named "Archive".
  2. If I don't care what something is, I Trash it right away.
  • Create Inventory project folders. Label them clearly, perhaps with a date so you know what assets go with what. Especially meaningful if you're working on multiple projects.

Plugins

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, add echo, make you sound like a robot, etc.

Plugins for specific hosts:

  • Sony Vegas - Page is messy and somewhat outdated.

Also see:

  • Toolfarm - Video plugins for various hosts.
  • NewBlueFX has neat and practical effects, and check out their bundle prices.
  • VideoCopilot.net - Special effects video tutorials. 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.

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 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.

More details — and a visual showdown!

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!

Related resources

  • Machinima FAQ - From pioneers and experts of the artform, Ill Clan Animation Studios.
  • Filme drehen in SL - deutschsprachige Anleitungen, Tipps zu Tools und Techniken zum Filme drehen in SL
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