Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Value of Good Enough

As a class assignment, in response to the question “You need a graduate degree to be a librarian?”, I made the above video.

As I’ve shown this video to people, by far the most common question they’ve asked has been “how long did that take you?” It was made using stop motion photography, which can be quite a time consuming process. In case you don’t know, stop motion is a way of turning still photographs into continuous video. All videos are made up of a series of frames (still images) which, played in rapid succession, appear to us as continuous motion. Film and digital video cameras record individual frames and automatically compile them into a continuous format. Stop motion photography is the process of photographing each individual frame, then manually compiling them. Because the photographs can be taken with any amount of time between them (as opposed to video recording, where the frames are recorded in “real time” with fractions of seconds between each one), a variety of effects can be achieved. One of the most common processes (used in my video or in a host of claymation stop motion films) is manipulating inanimate objects between each photograph, moving them a small amount each frame, so that when the frames are compiled, the inanimate objects appear to be alive, moving all on their own.

So the video did, in fact, take quite a long time to make. I took about 1100 photographs, moving books or paper a small amount between each shot. To film the main sequence (where the bookshelf is populated and the “ocean” and ship appear) took two evenings, probably about seven hours of work. Filming the text and transitions between each phrase took an additional two hours, or so. I had a tremendously good time with this part of the project. I watched movies and listened to music as I worked, sitting on the floor late at night with a beer and the occasional snack.

However, once I had those 1100 odd photographs loaded onto my laptop, I had to somehow compile them into a video file. My goal was simple – once the photographs were all in the correct order (backwards from the order I shot them – it’s much easier to take books off a bookshelf and crumple up paper than it is to put them on there or to uncrumple), I had to load them into a software, tell the software to play nine frames per second (fps) (in order for the video to last around two minutes, which is the length of the song I wanted to use), and export the file as a video.

Years ago, in high school, I made a stop motion video, and I used iMovie to compile the images. iMovie is a piece of software that comes packaged with Mac computers, and is relatively simple to master. As with most pieces of simple software (especially software designed to edit or create film, sound, and images) simple means less powerful, with less tight control available to the user. Additionally, iMovie is not designed for creating stop motion videos, it is meant to simply and easily combine images, film clips, sound recordings, voice overs, and text into a single video file. Back in high school, I loaded my images into iMovie, and played them each for a tenth of second. iMovie treated the video as a slide show which focused on each image for a very short time, but it worked. So when it was time to compile the pictures of my bookshelf into a video, I naturally turned to iMovie again. I hit a snag. In the past seven years, iMovie has been updated a few times, and the current version of the software will not show a slide show at nine fps – the fastest it will go is three fps (which would have both been six minutes long and looked awkwardly choppy). I spent far too long trying to get iMovie to play at nine fps – looking on a dozen different online forums, messing with every setting, even going so far as downloading the 2004 version of iMovie (it didn’t work, like, at all).

Eventually, I abandoned iMovie and tried using a much more powerful piece of software, Adobe Premier, which was available in the video editing room in Hinds Hall, full of ostensibly powerhouse desktop computers (much faster than my aging laptop). This software costs hundreds of dollars, has a multiple volume user manual, and is used by professional film editors. I even found an online tutorial on how to use this behemoth of a program to create stop motion films. I was excited, and it looked like my project was almost done. Eight hours later, after watching the program crash for the who-knows-how-many-nth time, I was less, to put it mildly, than happy. The same process kept repeating itself – I would load the files, start to render them together, or finish rendering and start to export to video, when the program would crash, making me lose hours of work (loading, rendering, and exporting are all long processes – granted I could do other work while the program was working, but I kept finding myself staring at the status bar as it crept across the screen).

Finally, tired and angry, I downloaded a free piece of software (FrameByFrame) which has none of the subtlety or power of Adobe Premier, or even of iMovie. It simply compiles images together into a stop motion video. FrameByFrame probably crashed as often as Adobe Premier, but it worked faster, so (after shrinking all the images down from multiple megabytes to a few dozen kilobytes each) I had a video clip. It wasn't as smooth, or crisp, or as free of shakyness as it could have been using Adobe Premier, but it was done. I put the finishing touches on using iMovie, and I did it on my laptop. It took less than an hour, start to finish.

There’s certainly a lesson here, and it applies to libraries, and it applies to life. Yes, we should strive for excellence, and if there’s a way to do something better, that’s the way it should be done. At first. But at some point we have to stop asking “how did it work before?” or asking “how should it work?” and start asking “how can it work right now?” Pretty words and grand ideas (like powerful software and fast computers) can lead to wonderful places, sometimes, but when they don’t, we need to know how to start over from scratch, to let go of the work we’ve done and the ideas we loved, and to realize that sometimes “good enough” can still be pretty great.

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