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Revolutionary: Capturing the Moment

Mike Sylvester

Every (other) week, Mike Sylvester brings you REVOLUTIONARY, a look at the wide world of Wii possibilities.

Segueing from last edition's topic: you've just built a sick Smash Bros. Brawl level, and you're ready to share it with the world. You upload it to your website and throw up some pics from the game's handy built-in photo mode. Everybody can see your creation without needing to first go through the trouble of downloading the level, putting it on an SD card, and loading it up on their Wii. Of course, your level looks like so much fun, they won't be able to resist trying it for themselves. But what if, like so many other games, there was no photo mode? How would you display your masterpiece? Or maybe seeing a still pic isn't enough to really sell the dynamics and spirit of your build. Then what? Read on as we delve into the art of video capture and photo composition -- for games!

We've all had a gaming moment that we wish we could share with others. Verbally recounting the story of a miraculous victory or unbelievable defeat just doesn't have the same impact as actually seeing it. Or how about when you made your first Mii and told everybody that it looked "just like you." Anybody who's ever seen a Mii would have a tough time believing that these simplistic charicatures could be anyone's spitting image, yet seeing is believing.

The best images and videos I've personally produced have come from direct capture methods. Connecting my console to a TV tuner/video capture card, USB capture device, or even the video input on the back of my video card has netted me crisper, more colorful images than pointing a camera at the screen. It's much easier to go that route, too, as the picture generally doesn't need much (if any) further processing, except perhaps to crop off black bars surrounding the screen.

Once, I even connected the output of one computer to the input of another to get some clear gameplay footage and lessen the number of editing steps I'd have to go through when compositing some camera footage of my hands working the controller.

Barring direct capture, a digital video camera is going to give you the best quality for editing. DVD-R, hard disk drive, flash memory-based, digital video cassette, CCD, 3CCD, CMOS, SD, or HD -- there's a ton of options to choose from and covering each of those in depth is beyond the scope of this primer. But any of those choices will produce video that's higher resolution than what is displayed on YouTube. So if that's your ultimate goal, you pretty much can't go wrong with any dedicated digital video camera.

Web cams, on the other hand, can vary greatly in specs and image quality, but even mega cheap ones can produce acceptable results under the right circumstances and with a bit of editing. I bet you can't pick out which videos I've shot with a used $5 PlayStation 2 EyeToy.

For still pics, you can go with a digital camera, or kick it old school with a film camera and a photo scanner. Some would argue film is king, but for my money (and time), digital cameras rule.

Some digital video cameras support still picture shooting, but be advised: the quality of these photos is pretty shoddy compared to dedicated still cameras. You can also hook up a camera to some video capture hardware, which may be your best bet if the hardware lags too much to game while viewing what you're recording. Your camera won't mind if Mario moves a little sluggishly in response to your controls, but you sure will when you jump into a black hole for the 80th time straight.

If all you've got is a cell phone camera, I don't know what to tell you. As much as I love my iPhone, there's no denying that photography belongs on the top of the list of features they threw in as an afterthought, and in my experience, that seems to be the case with most cell phone cameras. As with anything, there are exceptions, but even those can't compare to even a "Wal-mart Special" dedicated digital camera.

We seldom take a photo or shoot a video that wouldn't benefit from some touching up or editing. The image may be too bright or too dark. Sounds may be too soft or too loud. There may be extra stuff in frame that doesn't need to be shown, or some captioning or diagrams may be necessary to point out objects of interest. Both Windows PCs and Macs come with video editors, and while the tools and features aren't as comprehensive as a thousand-dollar editing suite, it's enough to get your toes wet cutting clips together, adjusting the image quality, dubbing commentary, overlaying music, and throwing on captions and titles.

Use of "gateway editors" can lead to an addiction that must be fed with more potent packages. Avid Xpress, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Final Cut Pro don't come cheap, but they are so robust and powerful that they are industry standards used by the big boys. If you want to do a simple capture with minor editing, VirtualDub or one of its forks may be all you need to capture and cut together a video. If you're of the Ed Wood school of filmmaking, where first take is all it takes, YouTube lets you upload live feeds from a web cam. I've tried it out a couple of times myself, but if you want to see how I get down in Rock Band, you'll have to pay up.

Photo editing can be less time consuming, if all you want to do is crop a pic or try to enhance the visibility. With a few minutes tooling in your "photochopping" application of choice, a blurry smear of pixels can oftentimes be made to resemble the image you wanted to preserve.

Note: Results not typical

People who don't already have experience with photo or video editing applications usually feel overwhelmed by all the palettes, plugins, filters, fonts, effects, and tools at laid out before them. Even for a seasoned Photoshop veteran, the open source alternative looks at first glance like too much to learn. Go into it with a goal of what you want your finished product to look like, and the steps to getting there can be just a Google search away. Just playing around with it is the best way to learn the ins and outs of many editing programs, and some of the most impressive projects are done through experimental methods which may not have any prior documentation.

Prepping for a shoot is very important. "Garbage-In-Garbage-Out" is what we say in the graphics world when we have material that is too low quality to be made pretty. There're lots of things which, if ignored, can make your material uneditable garbage. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when prepping for a shoot:

Steady the camera
A tripod's your friend if you don't have a surface to sit your camera on. Even if you do have a surface, a smaller tripod may help you in positioning the camera optimally.

When a tripod isn't handy or is just not feasible, I've found that I can stabilize the camera by holding it close to my chest and holding my breath. That's just for photos, though. Neither myself, nor Wii Fanboy will be held responsible for any injury or brain damage resulting from holding your breath during a 30 minute video shoot of a Subspace Emissary bout.

Flash reflects off of glossy screens, or washes out the picture on non-reflective ones, so turn your flash off. While you're at it, turn off any lights directly in view of the camera, behind, or to the side the screen. If turning off the lights isn't an option (Wii-ing in the dark can be dangerous), try to angle yourself so lights aren't reflecting off the screen.

Your web cam probably has a focus ring around the lens. Use it! What's the point of making a video or taking a picture when you can't make out what you're looking at?

If you're using a video camera, turn on manual focus. The same way your eyes are tricked into perceiving depth on a flat screen, your camera can also be fooled. You don't want it trying to decide what objects on screen it should focus on, because then it's blurring out everything else. Turn off the auto focus and adjust the lens so that the whole screen is sharp and clear in your view. (I've gotta remember to listen to my own advice on this one, because I forgot to do it for the video below.)

If using a microphone, try testing your TV at different volumes to find the sweet spot where it's loud enough, but not so loud that it's noisy or garbled. A microphone is essential if you want to provide commentary or just capture reactions from players and spectators in realtime. If you're going to edit the video later, you can always throw on voiceover at that time, too.

Some cameras have a line-in or microphone jack, and that can be used to record audio directly from the console, but the sound a console outputs may be too loud for the microphone input, and just make things too noisy. In that case, outputting from your TV (with the volume lowered) is a handy feature if your TV is sporting a set of output jacks.

Pick the right screen
By this I mean choose a display technology that's suitable for photographing. CRT televisions, even big screen projecting ones, don't hold up well to photographing or videoing. The constantly redrawing of the image, line by line leads to rolling black bars, flickering, and other visual artifacts which often can't be fixed in post. If it's at all an option, hook your console up to an LCD, plasma, LCOS, or DLP screen for shoots. My best photos were taken on an LCD monitor because the anti-glare coating eliminates reflections and there's no other display artifacts to fret over.

PC gamers have simple tools like FRAPS and GameCam for capturing video, and often times if they want to grab screenshot, it's as easy as hitting PrintScreen or a dedicated key pre-configured by the game's developer.

On the console side, we're rarely given the tools to record gameplay or take screenshots to share with others. While most racing games at least let you save ghost data and replays, and sometimes even enter a photo mode, there are few examples outside of that genre. Halo 3 set the bar pretty high in this respect by automatically saving replays for gamers to later watch from any perspective they can place their virtual camera. Smash Bros. Brawl followed suit with replay saves and a freely moveable 3D camera for screen grabs. We hold onto hope that, like stage builders and character creation, photo modes and replay saving become staples in games of the future. Where would we be if we thought "next gen" ended at upgrading graphics? There's no reason why we should rest at adding online functions or evolving controls.

If you haven't got top-of-the-line camera equipment or a 4-year degree in digital arts, don't be discouraged. As Wii fans, we're not the sort to let looks or presentation get in the way of enjoying the content or the vision. If I hadn't started out with the jankiest of ghetto setups, I wouldn't be here writing this for you now. A 15-year old VHS camcorder plugged into a DVD recorder, whose discs had to be ripped and transcoded before editing in Windows Movie Maker was what got me into video editing, a YouTube addiction, and writing about the GlovePIE scripts I was so eager to show off.

We all gotta start somewhere

If you've shot any amazing gaming videos, have a photo of a cool Mii to show off, or have a story of a gaming moment you wish you could have "caught on tape," please share it with us in the comments.

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