Sunday, April 15, 2007

Our Family Commercial

Mary rocks. She saw this contest for a My H.E.B. Commercial, and decided we should enter. She should be an advertising exec. I know- I used to be one. Sort of. Dad owned an advertising specialty company, which I eventually took over in college, and we did contract work for several advertising agencies, too. No kidding- Mary's ideas were firm-worthy, for sure.

I think it came out well. See what you think. Turn your SOUND on.

Anyway, she had a kick-butt idea for a commercial. So I storyboarded it, and we filmed at home all this past week, after I'd get home from work. We spent all of Saturday and most of Sunday editing it. All for a 25-second spot! But the Grand Prize is a $30,000 car, and First Prize is $5,200 worth of groceries, plus 10 winners of $1,000 worth of groceries, so it was worth it. Meanwhile, Mary had three more script ideas, so she entered those in the "script only" part of the contest, which also awards $1,000 worth of groceries.

Mary was lovely in front of the camera, as always. And Danielle, well, she was a natural. Getting the commercial planned out and filmed was a challenge, even though the finished product looks pretty simple.

The first challenge, of course, was the idea. Mary came up with a great one, straight from her own experience as a coupon-clipper (all those in the video were really her coupons!). She said that H.E.B.'s everyday price is even lower than many stores' prices with coupons, so sometimes she doesn't even bother with the coupons.

Next was the storyboarding. My buddy Joe McReynolds sent me some cool storyboarding templates, so that was handy. I sketched out 16 distinct shots, with a total of 7 different lighting and camera setups. Things evolved in the process of shooting, but at least were able to get what we needed with no pickup shots. Heck, we didn't have time for that, anyway.

Lighting was a big problem, as you can probably tell. We have 14 foot-high ceilings in our home, so the lighting tends to be pretty soft, for photography purposes. I pulled out my trusty Lighting Kit- consisting of 3 Wal-Mart brand tungsten shop lights, jury-rigged onto 2 microphone stands and a 4-foot high bar chair. Nice, eh? I did have one bounce card, consisting of the white top of a plastic Rubbermaid under-bed storage box. We spare no expense here, folks. While it wasn't perfect, at least we were able to get three-point lighting on Mary and Danielle in every shot.

Speaking of baby Danielle, Mary did a wonderful job going between caring for Danielle and acting, while I ran around madly trying to estimate the lighting setup with no body for a stand-in, and no real clue what I was doing, all before the baby's cry-bomb went off. Danielle was a real trooper during the shoot, I have to say. I think she was fascinated by the bright lights (such as they were).

Every night after shooting, we'd fly the video from our Canon GL-1 into the Macbook Pro, in (ugh) real time. Late Friday afternoon we wrapped shooting. Yea! We shot almost 90 minutes of raw footage.

Friday night we edited. Saturday we edited. A lot. Finally, we had a cut that we were happy with.

Then came the sound. Far as I was concerned, we were shooting MOS. But not really, since I left the sound running on the camera. I figured all the sound would be throw-away. As it turns out, we left most (not all) of it. I did have to massage the audio to drop out some waveforms, and level-set, gate, and compress others, but overall it wasn't too bad. I was able to do all of this in iMovie and GarageBand.

After trying to do the voice-over straight into the MacBook's built-in mic (on my porch, no less), I gave up and did it the right way. I dusted off my old Behringer 12-channel board, and a Rode NT-1 large-diaphragm capacitor mic, and plugged it into the Mac's input channel. The Rode is phantom-powered, so I couldn't just step-down with a passive connector. Unfortunately, I didn't have my stereo connections handy, so I panned everything hard left, and recorded a lopsided VO track. GarageBand handled everything nicely.

Finally, we had to lay the music bed. I searched my hefty collection of loop CDs, and some royalty-free Web sites until we found a couple of songs that worked. I pushed them together, found a good cut-point, and tapered the fade on the last one. For some reason, it extended the video by 3 seconds to do this, so I had to re-trim the rendered product back to 25 seconds exactly. But it worked.

That was the last thing that worked.

I exported the iMovie file to a Quicktime .MOV file, about 2 MB in size. But H.E.B's site wouldn't let me upload the file. It was grayed out in the "browse-select" box. Ditto for .WMV files. This despite the explicit statement that it WOULD accept those formats. [Sigh.] The site DID accept AVI and MPG okay, but my MPG converter wasn't picking up the sound. The AVI files were huge- from 50 MB to 750 MB! Anything smaller than 24 MB looked was horribly pixelated.

I spent hours trying to render down to an AVI file that wasn't 50 MB in size, but they all looked like crap. Finally, with my wimpy, lowest-of-the-low DSL connection offering me only a paltry 5 kBps upload speed, and the time approaching 10:30 p.m., I rolled over, and uploaded the fugly 7.7 MB AVI rendition. Yuck.

I was later able to get a 24 MB rendition up on the site, just before their Apache server barfed up a stack trace, then abruptly took the entire site down. But I never was able to upload the .MOV or the .WMV files. It'll all be squashed into Flash, anyway, so I guess that's OK, but garbage in, y'know?

Mary got her scripts uploaded- get this: through a Web form text box control! So much for formatting. She had to manually go back and add line spacing, etc. It was now impossible to distinguish slugs from action lines from dialog, so she had to go back and highlight all those by hand.

By 11:00 p.m. we were ready to break things, but at least our entries were safely uploaded. We had a blast doing the commercial, as did several other contestants, from what we can tell.

Mary will look good in that new car.

I'm off to bed (whew!).