Archives For How To

(Updated 9/2013 to include AtmosFearFX, new projectors)

Americans are projected to shell out over $5.8 billion dollars on Halloween, between a costume, candy and decorations.  In our household, my wife really gets into Halloween costumes but for me it’s all about the opportunity to play junior Disney Imagineer with fun effects.  Based on the feedback from last year’s Virtual Santa, this year I’ve created a new How To that shows how by using a few easily obtained items, you can build a cool Halloween effect sure to delight trick & treaters.  Here’s a short video of the experience:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-5m2H26IMQ

Project List

To create the effect yourself, here is what you need:

  • A physical window.  Just about any window will do.
  • An old PC projector OR a TV large enough to place in front of the window.  HD isn’t needed and you can pick these up cheap on eBay or Amazonalt.
  • Hallowindow animations DVD or downloadable video files, or
  • A Windows PC to drive the video or an DVD player, blank DVD and Windows DVD Maker
  • Windows Live Essentials Movie Maker (free download)
  • A good FM Transmitter or outdoor speaker. I used a C. Crane Digital FM Transmitteralt
  • A white sheet to cover the window.  Avoid patterns.
  • Black Scrim used for theaters or a sheet of the black garden weed blocker fabric from local hardware store.  Again, avoid patterns and logos.

Step 1: Set up the Projector

In my case, I’m using an Optoma DS317 SVGA DLP Projectoralt, a 3M MP225a Mobile Projector, and a Viewsonic PJD4513X Short throw projector for multiple effects.  Don’t worry about fancy features- a standard-def projector will work with VGA input.  The trick is to get one with 2000 lumens or better.  Also look for ability to adjust keystone (angle) and reverse the image.

IMG_0026

Step 2: Get the Hallowindow Animations

Hallowindow is a series of Halloween-themed audiovisual effects by Mark Gervais in Canada,  It’s a great solution and he’s really upped the quality of the exp

Product-Shot_jackolanternjam_medium

eriences over the past few years.  You can order a reasonably priced DVD or purchase individual videos for download via PayPal for instant gratification and burn your own.  I opted for download and burn which I describe below.  You can also follow Hallowindow on Facebook where you can learn from other users of this visual effect system.

Another recent addition from Seattle’s own creative studio AtmosFX is a new addition for 2013.  Created by popular TV visual FX specialists, AtmosFearFX offers a whole suite of options from the creepy to the family friendly.

Step 3:  Prep the Video

Mark did a great job with Hallowindow and I have a number of his 4 editions.  A number of the videos are decidedly creepy to the point that the little kids in our neighborhood and their parents may take issue.  For this reason, I edited out the scariest parts a bit with Windows Live Movie Maker, a free download in Windows Live Essentials 2011.  Just use the “Snip” tool to edit down the clips to just what you want.  You can even add your own title sequence such as “Happy Halloween from the Alexanders” or similar.  Have fun playing with the effects:

Halloween Movie Maker

Then save the edited video in the recommended quality.  This will create a video file that you can then burn to DVD:

Save Video Playlist

Step 4: Burn the DVD with Windows 7 DVD Maker

Last year I used a Netbook which was great, but I’m simplifying with a burned DVD $99 DVD player.  Windows 7 (and Windows Vista) come with a video DVD Burning tool called Windows DVD Maker.  Just type DVD into the Start menu search box and you’ll find Windows DVD Maker:

Windows DVD Maker

Important Step: Before burning your DVD, be sure to choose “Options” in the lower right corner and set the DVD to play in a continuous loop.  Most DVD players can do this from the remote control but some (like mine) keep the on-screen display on which ruins the effect.  Set it like you see here:

DVD Settings

If you are going to use a PC to drive video to the projector, make sure Windows Media Player is set to run in full screen and move the mouse cursor back over to the main Windows display.  This will set the player controls to hide automatically and has the added benefit of making sure any alerts/notifications will not appear on the projector.  The last thing you want to do is ruin the illusion.

Step 4: Prep the FM Tuner or outdoor speakers

There are a number of FM tuning options available, however I strongly recommend against using a solution designed for in-car.  They’re just not powerful enough.  Be sure to read the comments on Amazon for the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitteralt and you should get tips on how to boost for cars driving up to be able to hear your music.  If you’re eagle eyed, you’ll notice below that I’ve soldered a dipole FM antenna wire to the transmitter to improve the distance.

Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner

To figure out which station works best in your area, I recommend Belkin’s “My Best FM Stations” service. Just tap in your City/Zip/State and it will give you a number of options.  Be sure to try these out yourself.

Step 5: Set up the Window Screen

For the projection screen, I used a two-ply of a white sheet and the black scrim material as seen below.  The scrim adds a great deal of realism to the effect because it blocks out the high intensity “halo” effect many projectors create and increases the black levels in the video.  I just pinned up the scrim and the sheet behind it.  Take this picture to your local fabric store and they’ll be able to set you up (thank to my wife for contributing to the effort <g>).

Scrim Material

Be sure to avoid any wrinkles in the scrim or sheet.  We used push pins on the edges of the window moulding to hold it in place and avoid unsightly holes:

IMG_0027

Step 6: Fire up the projector, Create a Sign for the Yard and and get ready for Trick or Treaters

Be sure to level and center the display.  You’ll also want to adjust the distance from the window so the scale is correct. Put a sign on the yard with the FM Frequency you’re transmitting on and house and you’re ready to go!

Outdoor Hallowindow

Happy Halloween everyone!

 

Shot with Nikon D600 and Off-camera Flash

First attempt – shot with an Off-camera Flash

Last week, the WSJ reported that Sears and Wal-mart Portrait Studios abruptly shut down. Is this the end of an era as DSLR cameras become more mainstream? A few months ago, my wife bought an online deal for a local portrait studio. The studio is well known, quick to draw nods of acknowledgment when friends ask.  Our experience however was anything but impressive.  Our photos were taken by a teenage girl, bleary-eyed from too many strobe shots and working hard to maintain the attention of our two boys.  Hundreds of dollars later, we got the pictures and I was disappointed with the quality.  There had to be a better way.  There is.

If you have a Digital SLR, for about the price of a photo shoot and pictures, you can create your own family portraits at home anytime you want.  After investing just a little time in understanding the basics of lighting and off-camera flash (OCF), a 20 minute session with family yielded some amazing results that far outpaced the work of the so-called, “experts”. I highly recommend The Strobist blog, a great free resource and 101 series to get the basics down.  If you already have a flash (I use a Nikon Speedlite SB700), you can build a basic kit for under $200 that can be used over and over again, and you own the originals:

For the backdrop framing, I just bought some PVC from Home Depot and strung it up between two curtain holders with a few clamps. This, “Good enough and go” approach enabled me to experiment without concern, and upgrading equipment over time (e.g. wireless trigger, second flash) is easy.
If you’re even modestly into photography, I highly recommend this approach, or find a friend who is.  They just might be willing to quick photo shoot for you.

(Ed. Note: When I first posted this in 2009, I had no idea how popular it would become.  For 2011, I’ve updated the content to reflect updates and new options in the market.) (Ed. Note 2: Thanks to Techradar for naming our Yule Log Visualization for Windows Media Player one of the Top 60 free apps for Windows at #4) (Ed. Note 3: In 2011, I replaced the FM Transmitter with the CZH-05B from Amazon.com. This is highly recommended over the C.Crane and is worth every penny.

Virtual Santa Kit via Amazon.com

Seeing as we don’t have a large yard to run a Mannheim Steamroller over our neighbors, I went with something a bit more subtle and easier to set up.  The unexpected side effect is that kids throughout our neighborhood now think that Santa lives at our house!  Here is the result: With a few tweaks, your community can be treated to music and a message from Santa via a low-power FM transmitter.  All the details are below. Project ListTo create the effect yourself, here is what you need:

  • A window.  Just about any window will do.
  • The Complete Virtual Santa Kit or an old Projector and PC.  HD isn’t needed.
  • An old DVD player with ability to set playback to repeat.
  • A good FM Transmitter. I used a C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter but updated in 2011 to this one worth every penny for power)
  • A white sheet to cover the window.  Avoid patterns.
  • Black Scrim used for theaters or a sheet of the black garden weed blocker fabric from local hardware store

Step 1: Set up the Virtual Santa Kit (or Projector) The Virtual Santa Kit includes everything you need for projection.  If you’re going the homegrown route, I’m using an Optoma DS317 SVGA DLP Projector.  It has a great throw ratio and at 2500 lumens should be bright enough for neighborhood outdoor movies during the summer.  Don’t worry about fancy features- a standard-def projector will work with VGA input.  The trick is to get one with 2000 lumens or better.  Also look for ability to adjust keystone and reverse the image. Step 1: Set up the Projector I placed the setup on a small coffee table and made good use of the Windows 7 box to adjust the angle and do a quick alignment with the window: Step 1: Set up the Projector Step 2:  Prep the PC (or DVD Player) As you can see above, I decided to use a PC instead of a DVD player.  In this case, Windows 7 and Windows Media Player make an excellent choice if you’re going to change up your order, add custom music etc.  I set up the projector via the included VGA cable and have extended Windows Media Player to run on the projector as a second display.  You can set this by pressing [Windows Key] + P and choosing, “Extend” as seen below: Step 2:  Prep the PC and FM Tuner Make sure Windows Media Player is set to run in full screen and move the mouse cursor back over to the main Windows display.  This will set the player controls to hide automatically and has the added benefit of making sure any alerts/notifications will not appear on the projector.  The last thing you want to do is ruin the illusion. Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner There are a number of FM tuning options available, however I strongly recommend against using a solution designed for in-car.  They’re just not powerful enough.  Be sure to read the comments on Amazon for the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter and you should get tips on how to boostfor cars driving up to be able to hear your music.  If you’re eagle eyed, you’ll notice below that I’ve soldered a dipole FM antenna wire to the transmitter to improve the distance. Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner To figure out which station works best in your area, I recommend Belkin’s “My Best FM Stations” service. Just tap in your City/Zip/State and it will give you a number of options.  Be sure to try these out yourself. Step 4: Create a Custom Movie with your custom Virtual Santa Santa’s Symphonies is available as a digital download (MPEG-4) which plays fine with Windows 7 and Windows Media Player.  For Santa in the Window, there’s no music provided, but it’s easy to add your own – just use Handbrake to rip the DVD, add your favorite holiday music tracks with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie and save. Step 4: Create a WMP Playlist for your Virtual Santa  You”ll also notice that I have shuffle and repeat turned on on WMP.  Be sure to set repeat so the video can play indefinitely.  With Windows 7, the system is so stable I’ve let it run for an entire week without issue.  If you’re going the DVD route, burn a DVD with “loop” turned on via DVD Burner or iDVD. Step 5: Set up the Window “Screen” For the projection screen, I used a two-ply of a white sheet and the black scrim material as seen below.  The scrim adds a great deal of realism to the effect because it blocks out the high intensity “halo” effect many projectors create and increases the black levels in the video.  I just pinned up the scrim and the sheet behind it.  Take this picture to your local fabric store and they’ll be able to set you up (thank to my wife for contributing to the effort <g>). Scrim Material   Step 6: Fire up the projector, Create a Sign for the Yard and and delight the Kids Be sure to level and center the display.  You’ll also want to adjust the distance from the window so the scale of Santa is correct.  I use the WMP toolbar in full screen (seen below) to help center the video, then it automatically hides:IMG_7369 Remember to move the mouse cursor back to the main screen Be sure to put a sign on the yard with the FM Frequency you’re transmitting on and house and you’re ready to go! Looking for more project ideas?  Click the “Project” link at the top of the page. Happy Holidays everyone!