Thursday, December 25, 2008

Creating a Holiday Tribute to my Dad for a unique Christmas gift

About a month ago, I was asked by an editor to see if I could find a slide from 1978 that I took of helicopter logging in the Cascade Mountains. While I was looking for that slide I stumbled across a slide of my late father calling a square dance in the living room of their home.

Dad always enjoyed calling square dances and over the holidays we would push all the furniture back after dinner and he would give us a dance lesson. Dad loved music and even after he had to give up square dancing he would play his keyboard for hours. We lost him three years ago after a long battle with Parkinson's disease and miss him a lot especially this time of year. So, I decided to try to give my family the gift of seeing him call one more time.

All I had was a still image but I knew I could animate his face and synchronize his mouth to an audio file of a square dance call using a product called CrazyTalk.

First, I digitized the slide with a Nikon Coolscan slide scanner. Then I discovered his eyes were closed. Dad often called singing calls with his eyes closed. But I knew the CrazyTalk software animated the eyes so I had to give him open eyes. So, I went up on the internet and looked for a suitable pair of hazel eyes that I inserted with Photoshop Elements (I have the full version of Photoshop but find the interface in Elements to be much more intuitive and it performs almost all of the functions I use on a regular basis).

Next I tried to find the Square Dance cue sheet for Jingle Bells out on the web. I found a bunch of them but none with the words I remembered Dad called. So I wrote down the words I remembered as best I could from 30 years ago.

Then I started hunting for an instrumental version of Jingle Bells that would be suitable. I stumbled across a website called Soundsnap that had a database of music loops and sound effects. A free account got me 5 downloads a month. I downloaded the version of Jingle Bells I liked then went up to Audacity.com to customize the song to fit my storyboard. The song started right where Dad would need to start his call but I wanted to a little intro. I selected a few measures of one of the chorus sections for an intro and copied and pasted that to the beginning of the song.

Since I didn't have an audio file of Dad's voice, I decided to use a product called MorphVOXPro to morph my own voice into something more male sounding. So, I hooked up my USB headset and proceeded to experiment with the different male voices that you can download from MorphVOX Pro's website. At first I thought I liked the "old man" voice that was a little higher pitched than the standard male voice. But after making a number of recordings I decided to go with the deeper standard male voice. I must have recorded that audio track 20 times but I still couldn't make it sound quite right. It's hard to carry a tune when your voice is being morphed in real time! (I hope you'll forgive me for that Dad.)

Then I made my first attempt at tying everything together with Microsoft MovieMaker. I did not want to combine the music track and voice during the recording phase because I wanted the music track to play during the introductory graphics & the credits I would add later. But trying to synch the calling and the music separately was not working out. So I downloaded the music to my iPod because I couldn't get my computer to play the song while I attempted to use a mic at the same time. I suppose I could have recorded a karaoke session then split the music track off afterwards but I was in "get-it-done" mode and figured I could get it done faster with my somewhat low tech approach.

So I listened to the song on the iPod through one headset while I recorded the voice through MorphVox Pro with my other headset. Of course then I discovered the morphing software sort of wreaks havoc with someone trying to carry a tune (I really can sing better than that!)

But, after even more recording sessions I finally decided just to go with one of them. I figured Dad would forgive me!

So I launched CrazyTalk and imported the image I had edited and the .wav file I had created with MorphVox pro and it synched everything up. You can go into CrazyTalk and actually tweak the mouth shapes for different words if you don't like the automatic result. But, As the image I was using was not a tight closeup, I figured the automatic result was good enough.

Then I started experimenting with the different video compression schemes to get the best output. I finally settled on Indeo 5.1 with compression filter and a 320X280 frame size since I was using a portrait orientation picture.

Finally, I was ready for MovieMaker. I imported the still image first to serve as the intro and a beginning key frame. Then I added the CrazyTalk video file and the Jingle Bells music track. Then I went up on the web and found a suitable "Happy Holidays" ending graphic. I love puppies so I found one with a little Dalmation. I couldn't find any copyright references so I hope whoever produced it doesn't mind a personal noncommercial use. I added the puppy graphic to the end of the storyboard then used the timeline and playback window to synch up the visuals with the music.

The tempo was right with the voiceover but I had to keep adjusting the duration of the intro graphic to get Dad's calling to match up with the appropriate point in the melody. Then I created a title graphic and ending credits. I liked the animated shadowed Title style best and selected a red background for Xmas. Then I went in and added right wipe transitions between the title and the opening graphic, a heart-shaped transition to the puppy graphic and a fade before the ending credits. That's when I discovered the transitions threw off the music track again so had to go back and readjust Dad's video to the music track again.

I was just about to call it a wrap when I noticed that the background fill default in MovieMaker was black while in CrazyTalk it was white. The switch from black background around the intro graphic to white background around the video frames was distracting so I went into CrazyTalk and found I could change the background there to black too. Which meant I had to reexport the CrazyTalk video, remove the other video from my Moviemaker project and reimport the new video. Which also meant I had to resynch the music track AGAIN! Finally, after over 8 hours of editing, I produced my little 1 minute video and uploaded it to YouTube.

YouTube had a nice way to embed the video into a greeting card and send it to all my family members. So this is how my family received a gift that couldn't be purchased in any store. I hope they enjoyed the memories. I took a day and went to the local mall and did a little "normal" Christmas shopping just to unwind!

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