Saturday, March 7, 2009

How NOT to Prepare a Video for YouTube

In case you missed it, I recently uploaded videos onto YouTube for the first time. I posted a four-part video of me playing through the original Mega Man, complete with audio commentary. I have to say, I'm rather pleased with how they turned out.

I am not, however, pleased with the process that got me there.

For the benefit of aspiring YouTubers* as well as for the entertainment of the chronically bored, I present to you my saga of trial and error--or, rather, my saga of trials and errors.

We'll take this one part at a time.

CamStudio screenshotTo start, I played Mega Man on an emulator. (If that doesn't make any sense to you, click here for an explanation.) I needed a way to record my gameplay, and a camcorder just wasn't going to cut it.

So, I used a program called CamStudio, which allows you to select a portion of your computer screen and record anything that happens there to a video file, along with any sound that's going at the time. I highlighted the emulator window where the game was, hit Record, and started playing.

About twenty or twenty-five minutes in, I decided it might be a decent idea to stop recording and check the video to make sure everything looked alright. I had run a few short video tests beforehand, of course, and everything checked out then, so why should this time be any different?

...Because CamStudio can only record for about five or ten minutes at a clip; that's why.

A minor setback, to be sure; I just wrote off what I had played that far as practice, and I started over, this time breaking after every stage to stop the video and start recording a new one. I had originally planned to play straight through the game without stopping, and I have no doubt I would have done rather well.

However, if I had to stop at all, I figured I might as well take advantage of the situation and use saved states between stages so that I could run a stage several times until I had an extremely polished video that would hopefully be more interesting to watch (and one that would make me look better, at that!).

Thus, what normally would have taken me about 40-50 minutes to record instead took... well, I'm not sure exactly how long, but at least three times that.

At this point it's hard for me to keep track of what I did and in what order, so forgive me if I'm misrepresenting the truth (not that anybody would know it; not even me).

Then I used a program called WaveLab Light to record my audio commentary. Normally, Sound Recorder would have been sufficient for my purposes, but I literally have to put a microphone in my mouth for my computer to pick up any sound from a microphone. Oh, and WaveLab Light allows me to boost the volume in better ways than Sound Recorder can, but that took a bit of tinkering to perfect.

Wave Lab Light screenshotI've searched all over the Internet and adjusted all the sound settings that exist, and I've come to the conclusion that I need a USB mike instead of one that plugs into the microphone jack; my Logitech headset works fine in my father's laptop, but not my desktop (something I learned after a failed attempt at participating in the GameCola Podcast from my own computer).

Well, anyhow, I began watching my videos with the sound almost off while recording my commentary. My stupid, stupid commentary. I realized I had no idea what I was doing, trying to improv worthwhile dialogue while watching a video that I soon decided was not quite as good as it could have been.

So I played back through the entire game. Again. This time, I took even longer than before, and any tiny missteps in the first minute or so of each level were punished by starting over until I got it perfect. If I was going to show off, I was going to show off. None of this getting hit by the first enemy that saunters across my path nonsense.

I was infinitely more pleased with the second playthrough, but I wanted to go in prepared with my audio commentary. Writing up a script would have taken too long and probably wouldn't have sounded quite as natural (despite my legendary acting ability), but I did jot down some notes while watching each stage so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to talk about.

It took me way more takes to get the audio right than the gameplay, because if you say something incredibly doofy on YouTube, it can easily be turned into a soundbyte that becomes forever etched in the public consciousness and is perfect fodder for other Internet video parodies. (Familiarize yourself with Liam Lynch's "United States of Whatever" and then listen to the Revenge of the Sith-inspired "United States of NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" for a perfect example of one possible worst-case scenario.)

I encountered two major stumbling blocks in my audio recording. First, there are other people in my house, and it's hard to concentrate and not be self-conscious when other people are buzzing about just outside your door. So I had to wait until people were away or, more often, asleep. Second, I overestimated my ability to record for about three straight minutes without making even a small mistake that would bother me enough to start over.

Hi, I'm a perfectionist.

When re-recording threatened to send me off the deep end, I eventually resorted to editing my commentary, piecing together the parts that I liked as best as I could. A few takes were great except for a single poor choice of words, exclamation that was a bit too loud, or unfortunate voice crack (lots of talking and not enough water can do that to a man), so I had to get my hands dirty and learn how to delete, dub over, or lessen the volume of the offending sounds.

Also, I needed a program where I could see how long my audio tracks were compared to my videos so that I could more easily tell exactly where to begin recording again instead of guessing or trying to do the math. Enter Windows Movie Maker.

I was gonna use Movie Maker (henceforth known as "MM") to compile my final video anyhow, but I had hoped to have just one audio track for each stage so I didn't need to futz around with carefully placing my commentary mid-video. During this time (well, actually, before this time, but I already told you my memory is not to be trusted) I also used MM to split my run of Mega Man (henceforth known as "MM") into four less-than-ten-minute episodes so that they wouldn't violate YouTube's video length policy. This took a little bit of time and coordination, but ultimately, I think I broke up MM pretty well in MM.

That is, of course, to say nothing about the little quirks with MM (and all the other programs I used, for that matter), that consumed a precious three seconds here and there for very stupid reasons. The details are relatively inconsequential, but they involved having to close and reopen MM from time to time to get sound files to work properly. And I'll leave it at that.

After far too much time recording the audio commentary, I was ready to put everything together. I began late on Saturday morning to bring this project to a close, with high hopes that everything might be uploaded and finished by 1 or 2 PM so I could have all the rest of the day to goof off.

I arranged audio and video in MM, watched and listened to the transitions between clips to ensure that everything ran smoothly, and then started the process of creating the final videos, which would be four complete .WMV video files with my audio commentary over the normal game sounds. I had already compiled a test video with commentary, and it sounded good and looked decent enough--not perfect by any means, but about as good as you'd see on YouTube anyhow.

Mega Man 9 Endless Attack screenshotCompiling videos can be very time-consuming (somewhere on the order of 10 minutes per video), so I kept myself busy by playing Mega Man 9's Endless Attack mode. Once the videos were completed, I sat down and watched every single one from start to finish to ensure that there was nothing wrong with them. Satisfied, I directed my Web browser to YouTube and began the uploading process.

However, before I could do that, I needed to create an account. Easy peasy, right? Nobody else would ever call "Flashman85," right?

Wrong-o. Every variation of every nickname or handle I've ever gone by was already taken, along with anything Mega-Man-related that was even remotely clever (such as "Mega Man Man"). Guess that's what I get for jumping on the YouTube bandwagon several years after it became popular.

What's worse is that, at least for a little while, in order to determine whether or not a username had been taken, I needed to fill out the entire form all over again, retyping my name, e-mail address, home address, social security number, astrological sign, blood type, and preferred steak doneness about 18 times. Then, and only then, did I unlock the magical technology of a little notification telling me whether or not the selected username had been taken.


So I started going through the names of all of my favorite robot masters. No dice. Then I tried the names of their special weapons, and I kept going until I finally found that "GeminiLaser" was free, so I grabbed that one before some snot-nosed kid came along, stole it, and then decided he didn't like YouTube and wasn't going to log in again.

That was frustrating, but the upload process was very easy, and I was able to enter the video descriptions and tags and all that while they were being uploaded.

Then, at long last, my videos began to appear on YouTube.

...And they looked like junk.

Pro Tip: .WMV files look atrocious when converted to the .FLV format YouTube uses. At least, that's what I understand they use, but they could have been using .UHF (Ugly Horrible Format) for all I could tell.

This would not do.

I quickly yanked the videos off of YouTube and began to theorize about why the videos had become so hideous. (Because when you convert the beginning of your "videos" into the UH Format, your "videos" become "hideous." Get it? Oh! Oh! I am too clever for my own good!)

(Too much of a stretch? Oh, well.)

I then dedicated several hours to doing the one thing I had no desire whatsoever to do in the undertaking of this project: learn anything about creating videos.

Here's the long and short of what I found out: Every time you convert a video into a different format, no matter how nice the conversion may look, that degrades the quality of the video. The .WMV files I had created had some sort of weird compression or something that I still don't quite understand that made them rather unsuitable for further conversion into the format YouTube uses.

Windows Movie Maker has a single option that will convert a movie into a beautiful-quality .AVI file, which gets converted into YouTube's format much more nicely. So I used MM to convert my first MM video into an .AVI file.

...An .AVI file that would not load up when I tried to play it. I checked the file size: over 2 GB. YouTube accepts a maximum file size of 1 GB.

And to think that I actually laughed when I first read that size description.

In the midst of all this confounded learning I was forced into, I was downloading and trying out different programs that I could use as an alternative to Movie Maker, or at least ones with which I could more successfully convert my files into something tolerable.

I figure I went through maybe five different programs before settling on VirtualDub. VirtualDub, unfortunately, could not replace MM for one reason: you can only overdub a video's original soundtrack with a single audio file, meaning I would have to transform all of my commentary into a single, perfectly timed file, and that the Mega Man music and sound effects in the original video would be overwritten entirely by my commentary that was meant to go on top of the music and sound effects.

Virtual Dub screenshotHere's the solution I devised: Take the huge 2 GB .AVI file from Movie Maker and load it into VirtualDub, then compress and convert it into whichever format would be best for uploading to YouTube.

That would have worked brilliantly, had not the audio been junk.

Suddenly, my beautiful voice sounded as though it was being piped through the McDonald's drive-thru window, and this was blatantly unacceptable.

Here's the next solution I devised, after nearly reaching into my monitor and crushing the VirtualDub window with my bare hands: Use the video portion of the 2 GB video and put the audio portion of the .WMV file over top.

Jodix WMA to MP3 converter screenshotThis worked. But I needed a utility to rip the audio, so there went some more time searching for usable programs. I ended up with the Jodix WMA to MP3 converter--turns out my audio files should have been in .MP3 format rather than .WAV format all along; I had just assumed that converting things into a certain video format would take care of everything, but, NO.

Hey, remember the part where I said, "This worked"? Well, it didn't. Not entirely. The video I produced looked exactly the same as the .WMV files. Once again, I found myself scouring the Internet for any clues as to why everything was so stupid. I mean ugly. No, I mean stupid and ugly.

Zounds! I needed a DivX codec to encode my videos. I got that, fired up the compression machine once again, and then took a look at the finished result. This time, the video looked even worse than the .WMV file. That's when I took to tinkering with the DivX codec, which you can apparently tinker with for better results.

Once again I created the video. Once again, it stunk. Stank. Stinked?


Because each video looked just as lousy as the last, and because at one point my videos were nothing but an orange screen with my audio commentary, I ended up repeatedly going through the process of barely adjusting a single option with the DivX codec in VirtualDub, spending at least ten minutes letting the computer do its thing, and then watching for about five seconds before throwing my hands up in the air because absolutely nothing had changed.

Plug ManWhile all this processing was going on, I kept playing the Endless Attack mode. And I was making about as much progress there as I was with the videos. Although, I am proud to say that I was able to defeat Plug Man by fighting him with the arm cannon once my few remaining uses of Jewel Satellite were exhausted, and that I survived the last half of the fight with just one unit of energy left.


So I eventually tried the other codec that was suggested, which YouTube actually recommends. Ffdshow, it's called, which you would never find unless you searched for "ffdshow tryouts."

Intuitive, that.

This codec was beautiful. It was The One. And now I needed to once again tweak a few options such as image sharpness to make sure it was as close to perfect as I could get it.

Oh, and that's to say nothing of the fact that I needed to find a way to properly encode my .MP3 ripped from the .WMV in the final video. At that point I didn't even know what was going on, but something about downloading a lame codec and killing 44.1 somethings until they hurt and... I'm sorry, but I really don't understand all the technical stuff involved in audio or video, and it's a wonder I managed to pull this off at all.

Wow, I almost forgot: The sound I ripped from my .WMA files didn't quite synch up with the video when I dropped it into VirtualDub, so I had to manually bump the sound ahead by milliseconds until it synched up exactly. Pain, especially for a perfectionist.

Eagle Eye posterYet, somehow, a set of four finished videos finally emerged. I was flitting in and out of watching Eagle Eye during this time, both because I needed something other than Endless Attack to keep me busy and because everybody else was out there eating dinner.


The final version of my videos looked pretty darn good, and I had a reasonable amount of confidence that they'd look at least passable on YouTube, which was all I was gunning for anymore.

Joy of joys, they looked better than passable. They looked very passable.

Now they're online for the whole world to see. I've received some very positive feedback from the folks who have watched them, which actually really surprised me--I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, absolutely sick of hearing my own voice when I tuned in to a little bit of the YouTubified videos, so, naturally, I imagined that everybody else would't be able to withstand that much Me talking.

What struck me the most, which was even rarer than me getting sick of my own voice, was that I was sick of Mega Man. Quick, get a doctor, right? I'm all better now, but golly, it's a weird feeling when your two favorite things in the world make you sick.

I exaggerate, of course, because my voice is only my fifth favorite thing in the world (no, not really), but this was still very odd for me. As if Alex (remember him?) were to suddenly be repulsed by Batman and Ewoks. Or whatever that other thing it is that he likes the most that isn't Ewoks.

EwokHeck, is anybody still reading this? Jeez, I must have went over the maximum size limit for a post a long time ago. I won't be surprised if Blogger doesn't let us post for the next three days because of this.

At any rate, it took me roughly two weeks, endless frustration, and literally twelve straight hours on a Saturday to finish these videos and make them YouTube-ready, but I have overcome.

And I am so ready for the next batch of videos.

There are definitley plans for a Mega Man 2 video series, and now that I know what I'm doing, things should go much more smoothly. In fact, I've been thinking about a few other ways that might streamline this process and result in slightly higher-quality videos. Except I'll be smart this time and get all my GameCola stuff written and out of the way in advance so I'm not trying to write a big review and do video stuff in the same weekend.

So there you go. My tale of pity and woe. Now, good heavens, let's bring this post to an end.

*[YouTubers: Not to be confused with PewTubers, led by the Popetato.]


Scott said...

I recommend Vegas Video. Render in h264 and it'll look fine on youtube; youtube will also allow a HD option.

Flashman85 said...

Vegas Video sounds neat, but "free" beats "professional" right now. I'm saving all the original files, though, so I may go back eventually and try it out.