How many hours does it take to film a lightbulb?

How many hours does it take to film a lightbulb?

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A lot.

As you may know, I like to work on independent films as a hobby. I am currently working on another project as an Assistant Director, but I'll leave out details of that project until it's done.

Anyway, this blog post is not about my weekend hobby, but about shooting a video for work. Every few months, we have a "Product Unit Meeting," which involves getting everyone in the product unit together for a few hours to talk about what's been happening over the past few months, what's going to happen over the next few months, see some cool product demos, hear about customer feedback for the product, and so forth. There's a lot of information in the meetings, but management tries to keep them fun, too.

A while ago I was roped in to helping Andrew Clinick and a few other PMs do an impromptu video for a PU meeting, which had some semblance of a plot (ha ha ha) and was mildly interesting. It got a few laughs -- which was good -- but it wasn't really much to write home about in terms of filmmaking.

This time, our GPM (Group Program Manager) had recently returned from sabbatical and had the crazy idea that all the PMs should sing "Busy Busy Busy" from the Philadelphia Chickens book. Yeah right! Since she insisted that we do something, I offered to "take one for the team" and said I'd shoot a video clip for the song.

So how long did making the movie take? The song itself is less than three minutes long, but here's some rough guesses on the time it took to put the video together:

First, I spent almost a week just running over ideas "in the background," letting them sink in, getting a "vision" for the project, etc. The basic theme was to cut together footage of PMs doing real work (in meetings, on the phone, etc.), PMs running around the hallways like silly cartoon characters (my best piece of direction on the shoot was to tell people "Run that way... now back the other way... it's 'Scooby Doo!'"), and PMs goofing off doing nothing related to work at all. I also spoke with another PM, who had an interesting idea for the video: shoot a re-enactment of the meeting where the GPM announced we should do the song, then cut to a "dream sequence" of us doing the song, so that we did it but didn't actually have to do it live. The final idea was a combination of the two -- an initial meeting where the idea was unveiled, and the actual video clip of PMs doing various things.

Next, I spent a few hours storyboarding my ideas for shots (a "story board" is where you draw little pictures of what you want each particular shot or sequence to look like when it is filmed; kind of like a detailed comic strip to accompany the script). There were a couple of key sequences that I knew I wanted (and I wanted them to look a particular way), but there were also a bunch of other things that I just wanted basic footage of and I could try random angles etc. on the day.

After the planning had been done, we set up a couple of meetings with the PMs to actually do the shooting. All in all, I probably spent about three or four hours shooting -- including direction, brainstorming for additional scenes, goofing around, location changes, etc. -- for a total of about forty-five minutes of raw footage. Now that might sound highly inefficient -- taking four hours to get forty-five minutes of footage for a three minute video -- but it's actually quite good. Now I didn't have any lighting or set decoration or makeup or anything else to worry about... but still ;-). The "average" rate of shooting for a real movie is to shoot five minutes of screen time per day.

Now on to the hard part -- editing! They say a film is made in the editing room, and that's often true. The editor can set the tone, the pace, and even the plot of the film. They can make a scene suspenseful, or dramatic, or funny, or action-packed, just by the way they cut different angles together and shake up the dialogue. They can change the way a story is told by omitting (or just re-arranging) dialogue or other points of exposition. Anyway, my measly forty-five minutes of footage took upwards of twenty-five hours (yep, hours) to cut together the way I wanted it. The main reason it took so long was that the song is very fast, and I wanted lots and lots of very rapid cuts -- most shots last for four seconds or less -- and that took a lot of frame-by-frame tweaking in some areas, and just some very time consuming arrangements in others. I also wanted it to match the beat of the song (of course :-) ) and I added some other background music to the intro / credits as well. Oh, and something that probably no-one appreciated, but I took some time working on -- during the song, all the "live" audio from the original footage is muted, except for five key shots where I left it in. And one of those is cunningly timed with the music, although no-one will even know it ;-)

The final video -- including a Star Wars-like scrolling text intro, the meeting re-enactment, the video clip, and an epilogue -- weighed in at 4:57 and included approximately 130 different cuts (whew!). It was put together using Windows Movie Maker 2.1 (free with Windows XP Service Pack 2), which was actually much better than I had expected. It's obviously not a professional-level editing tool, and it has issues with frame-by-frame cuts and so on, but it does do the basics quite well and lets you do stuff like overlay audio and speed up / slow down footage.

Overall, I am pretty happy with the video. It seemed to be a crowd pleaser -- which was of course the purpose of the film -- and some of the sequences turned out how I wanted them to, but it could have been so much more ;-). It's just like when we ship a product to customers -- if we've done things reasonably well, customers love the product and think we've done a great job, but all we tend to focus on is all the cool things we had to cut from it and how we're going to make the next version so much better. Software development (and movie production) is no job for laurel-resters. Of course, I had a wonderful cast to work with :-) and they had some great ideas for scenes as well... and I'd like to thank my parents, my agent, my friends, my Expobar, ...

I would like to post the video for all to see, but unfortunately it is set to music which I obviously don't have permission to distribute.

And it would be pretty silly watching it without the sound.

  • Can you get permission, perhaps as a promotional item? ;)
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