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The best things in life are(n’t always) free December 24, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration, Resources, Tools.
Tags: ,
money sign

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by 401(K) 2012: http://flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6870882811/

Since viewing the first one, I’ve always been impressed with the simplicity and clarity of Commoncraft videos, so when I became aware that the originator, Lee Le Fever, had released a book, I thought I’d check out how he approached their production. I also wondered whether the contents might have something to say about teaching … but that’s for a future post. Having thought about the tools and techniques that Lee suggests, I just needed a reason to put what I’d learned into practice. Fortunately I had just such an excuse which arose from the resources I’ve produced to support our forthcoming RiskIT professional development programme. In attempt to provide some background and history I included the video available on the RiskIT site, but got a little pushback from colleagues who said it was rather long to watch in its entirety. At atound 40 minutes I guess they had a point, but there didn’t appear to be anything snappier … so there was my opportunity to attempt a Commoncraft-style production, given that one of the primary goals is brevity.

Following Lee’s helpful advice, my starting point was to establish my intentions and decide the nature of the problem the video would solve; in this case it was to provide an introduction to RiskIT. From there I had to flesh out what would be the crucial points to convey, then write a script to cover them. The text has primacy, but given the constraint of an upper limit of 4 minutes length for the video, it was then a matter of editing the script until that criterion was achieved whilst still retaining the essence of the message. My ‘recording studio’ was Audacity which allowed me to record the narration and export it in mp3 format. Next it was on to the imagery which would be used to support and enhance that message and in the Commoncraft spirit, it needed to be simple, accessible and free from background noise. Although Lee advises the use of hand-drawn, expression-free characters, that was a little beyond my artistic skills, so I chose to draw a little help from DoppelMe, an avatar creation tool. The remainder of the images were then either screenshots or photos which were traced in order to extract the meaning and leave behind the noise.

With all my cut-outs ready to go and script by my side, I used a video camera (Kodak Playsport Zx5) mounted on a tripod and began shooting. A couple of hours later, everything I needed was in the can and I could begin editing. MovieMaker was the tool of choice, mainly because I had no other option … but it proved to be a costly mistake. To cut and fit the footage to the recorded narration took about four hours, after which I attempted to finalise the movie. Oh dear! Despite repeated attempts and in defiance of the fact that there was more than ample space on the hard drive, MovieMaker kept telling me that either there was insufficient space to store the video, or that one of the clips I’d used was corrupt (though naturally not which of the 30+ clips was at fault!). So I converted the source files from mp4 to avi, Googled a way to swap them without starting from scratch, then tried once more to finalise the movie. Still no joy. OK, one more try; resample the avi’s into wmv’s. Nope. Next it was onto another computer running Windows XP and the older version of MoveMaker and go right back to square one. Three hours later and I still couldn’t render the movie, so I wondered if I could produce it smaller parts, then stitch them together to produce the whole. Aha! MM would allow me to finalise the first 45 seconds, so I did that and then moved on to the next section. Nope. I trimmed it and trimmed it, even down to a single 5 second clip, but it still wouldn’t render.

Retrieving my dummy after spitting it out, I knew I had to ditch MM and look for something more robust but inexpensive, and came across Serif MoviePlus SE which is free to use for a limited period. Duly downloaded said item, installed it and another couple of hours later was relieved to have a finished movie. Woohoo! I was more than happy with the features and capability that MoviePlus offered and when the 14 day period expires, will happily shell out the princely sum of £4.99 to download the codecs pack to keep it working.

And the final product? Here ’tis:

Look out for further musings on how RiskIT develops as we get closer to our programme becoming ‘live’.


1. Lois Lindemann (@morethanmaths) - December 26, 2012

I think you’ve done a great job with the video Ian – really like the “in plain Yorkshire”. I’ve also struggled with file sizes in Movie Maker, so I’ll be giving Movie Plus a try too.

What did you do about lighting? My attempt at a Commoncraft style video proved surprisingly difficult and featured a lot of glare on the white paper I was using as a background and a pair of ghostly white hands.

2. ianinsheffield - December 27, 2012

Hi Lois, thanks for the feedback.
Movie Plus is well worth a look. I think MovieMaker was struggling with handling data from around 30 separate video clips, rather than file size being a problem in this case … though they did total around 250Mb all together.

I was hoping to shoot the footage in natural light, but it was what’s become a typical December day this year and was far too dark, so I simply used the room’s fluorescent lighting … maybe that diffused provision helped rather than using the more direct light from a spot source like a reading lamp. Or the fact that I was working on the floor, well away from the light sources. I also used a matte drawing board as a background; perhaps that helped too.

Would love to see your video(s) when finished 🙂

3. John Johnston - December 27, 2012

Great video Ian,
Love the plain Yorkshire.
As I recall Serif used to provide the latest version but 1 for free for edu.
Having said that I think it is well worth paying for products you really need/like. If you don’t you need to regard them as temporary solutions as whoever is paying the bill is either selling you to their customers , figuring out how to make money or going to change/stop service.

4. ianinsheffield - December 27, 2012

Thanks John, much appreciated. Had to add the Yorkshire disclaimer since I’m unlikely ever to be accused of speaking Her Majesty’s English 😉

I couldn’t agree more. I’m always a little disappointed when folks whinge about products disappearing which were ‘free.’ We need to adopt the mindset you describe, where we enjoy the benefits we get from free access in full knowledge that we’re often as not helping with the testing process and that ultimately when the product is mature (if it gets that far), a subscription or purchase will be required. As a Yorkshireman of Scots descent, I *like* free, but am always happy to send a few £/$/€ where developers request donations.

5. The Art of Explanation … or is there some Science in there? « In the pICTure - January 1, 2013

[…] I mentioned in a previous post, I recently acquired the book “The Art of Explanation” by Lee LeFever. Impressed by the […]

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