Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to Film a Piano from Above

I promised that I would write a blog post on how I got the overhead piano shots in my last video.

The problem is that it the camera needs to be directly above the piano and high enough to use a longish focal length (to avoid fisheye distortion of the straight horizontal lines of the piano). You can't just use a normal tripod... it would have to be a really tall tripod with a long boom arm.

But this is exactly the kind of puzzle Johanne and I like to work through over Sunday morning coffee. We put our heads together and came up with a pretty simple solution.

We have ten-foot ceilings, so there's definitely enough room to get the camera high enough. We gave up on the idea of stands and booms right away, which left fixing the camera to the ceiling. Johanne came up with the idea of a T-track like the tracks in power tool tables that let you fix jigs, fences, etc. to the table. The track itself is in the shape of a C, which gives it a T-shaped slot. You slide a T-bolt into the slot, place your object (with a hole in it) over the T-bolt, then tighten it down with a knob.

So we installed a short length of T-track on the ceiling above the piano:
Gold T-track fixed to ceiling above the piano

In the zoomed-out photo, the gold T-track above the piano just looks like a gold line on the ceiling. Zooming in, you can make out the C-shape of the track forming a T-slot:
T-track on the ceiling

To fix the camera to the T-track, we bought a simple L-bracket. We fix one arm of the L-bracket to the T-track with a T-bolt and a knob:
T-bolt passing through the L-bracket

The T-shaped head of the T-bolt slides into the slot of the T-track. Tightening the knob fixes the L-bracket to the T-track. Using a single bolt allows us to rotate the bracket under the T-track to get it perfectly square with the piano keyboard. We attach the camera to the other arm of the L-bracket using a 20-1/4" knob bolt, which is one of the standards for camera tripod mounts:
Camera attached to the perpendicular arm of the L-bracket

A thin piece of wood keeps the L-bracket from marring the camera and prevents the knob bolt from bottoming out in the camera's tripod mount. The camera can swivel on the L-bracket to make sure the focal plane is parallel with the keytops (to avoid trapezoid distortion).

Simple! I bought the T-track, T-bolt, knob and 20-1/4" knob bolt at Woodcraft, and the L-bracket at Lowe's. Total cost: about $15.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Video: Schubert--Impromptu Op.90 No.4

Here is another piece that I didn't really plan on adding to the repertoire. I only intended to learn it well enough to record it back in Spring 2008 as a surprise for my mother. As I wrote on the blog back then:
Schubert's Impromptu is a piece that my mother used to play. Some of my earliest memories are of her playing it on her old Chopin upright piano. I couldn't have been more than four or five years old. But it was one of the pieces that got me interested in learning the piano and has stuck with me all these years.
But I found that I really enjoyed playing it, and it was close enough to performance level to work it up for the first ConcART in October, 2008. These days I probably run through it at practice once or twice a month. That seems to be enough to keep it "ready".

The piece itself is a little deceptive. There's nothing obviously difficult about it. But keeping the right hand "waterfalls" light and even is very technically challenging. This recording shows that I still struggle with the evenness. That's also what makes it risky to play this piece on an unknown piano. If the action isn't responsive enough you're in for a hot, gooey mess.

I continue to push my experimentation with the video, here. I'm finding that mixing up different camera angles adds to the interest of the video, making it easier to sit through the whole thing. (I'm also finding that it's important to plan the angles/switches instead of just jumping around between them randomly). One of my favorite camera angles in professional videos is the direct overhead shot. But it's not an easy shot to get: how do you get the darn camera up there? And it has to be high enough to get the whole keyboard without fisheye distortion. Anyway, I batted some ideas around with my personal problem solving expert (Johanne) and we came up with a nice solution. I'll write a separate blog post about it soon.

Schubert: Impromptu Op.90 No.4 from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Video: Mozart--Variations

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote these twelve variations on the melody from a popular French children's song called Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman. The title translates roughly to "Well, let me tell you mother...". The words to the song catalog the grievances a young girl has with her parents, such as putting too much emphasis on lessons and not enough on candy. The exact same melody is also used in at least three English children's songs, too. Namely, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Bah, Bah, Black Sheep, and the Alphabet Song ("Now I know my ABCs").

My history with the piece is kind of spotty. The score was always nearby when I was growing up, and I would often mess around with it, but I never had any interest in really learning it. Then last Spring when Steinway Guy asked me to play in his students' recital, it seemed like the perfect fit. So I worked up eight of the variations for that performance. Having that much of it under my belt, it was easy to add the remaining four variations for my ConcART-II program. I don't imagine I'll continue to play the piece much, but Johanne suggested that it would be a good idea to videotape it before it starts to degrade.

So here we are.

On the video... I'm still working on the process, trying to improve lighting, video quality, production values, etc. This is my first attempt compositing video from more than one camera angle. And the audio bugs me on this one. It's too harsh... not warm enough. Part of that is the piano. It's brightened considerably over the last year and a half. I had Gary the Piano Tech bring down the voicing a little, but it needs more for my tastes. I think I'll do more experimenting next time with mic position and maybe fool around with more eq/filtering during mixing.

One last comment: listening to some other videos of this piece on YouTube, I notice a few differences in arrangement. Most people don't tie those notes over the bar line in variation I. And there even seem to be some differences in notes in the right hand B section of variation III. I wonder if these are actual differences in the different editions of the score. I used the International, but I know there are several other publishers, too. I'll have to check it out at the library.

Mozart: Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" from Ken Barker on Vimeo.