The Perils of Cheryl is a tribute to the silent movie era and the flapper era, both of which were going strong in the late 1920s. Notice the flapper costume. Flapper girls were a bit risqué and the cartoon character Betty Boop is a caricature of this creature of the flapper era. We watched some of her cartoons on YouTube and tried to have Cheryl’s adventures in OUR story fit the spirit of that cartoon. We believe we made an excellent choice for the actress who would play Cheryl. Betty Boop would often wear flapper outfits, and just as often have wardrobe malfunctions, some of which left her in a slip or bloomers.
We also tipped our hats to the classic The Wizard of Oz when we started and ended the story in black and white. We used color only when our damsel named Cheryl hit her head and had a dream, just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
The title The Perils of Cheryl tips its hat to all the old “damsel in distress” movies of the silent movie era, such as The Perils of Pauline. Given that the setting for our movie is a train layout, it would have been remiss of us to omit the old cliché of the damsel in distress being tied to the railroad tracks by an evil villain and getting saved just in time by the hero.
Note that even though the layout is technically modeled after the 1950s, we hid all our diesels for this movie since there were none in the 1920s. It was the glorious age of steam locomotives.
The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick in the United Kingdom and on 21 February 1804, the world's first railway journey took place.
The U.S. didn’t get serious about trains until 1829. It didn’t get serious about diesels until the 1930s. During the 1950s we switched over from steam to diesel, although some steam locos are still in operation carrying tourists on excursion runs in a few places. We’re happy to see these steam engines still keeping the memories alive, since the steam locomotive is one of the coolest, classiest, and most intriguing inventions there ever was.
It played a critical part in settling the West, helping the Industrial Revolution advance more rapidly, drawing the various parts of the U.S. together to become a true nation, speeding up transportation times and efficiency enormously, and aiding our military efforts in the Civil War and the 2 World Wars.
Steam locos play a critical role in The Perils of Cheryl, transporting the bad guy to where he could place the damsel in distress in nasty situations, and transporting the good guy to where he could save her. We hope you will enjoy our movie as much as we enjoyed making it!
We think of our drama, The Perils of Cheryl, as a microdrama. It’s about people living on a train layout that, because it’s N-scale, is 1/160th scale, therefore 6 foot people are only half an inch tall. Hence the MICRO part of our word MICRODRAMA.
Aidan James McClean
All About Green Screen Use
You may have wondered how we inserted these actors into our N-scale model train layout. We used a green screen. All green screen editing works by using a substitution method—background pixels replace green pixels surrounding the subject. To accomplish this, the subject is photographed in front of a green screen and this is loaded into a software program like Ultra 2.
Ultra 2 is a keying program. Ultra 2 analyzes the entire frame and generates a mathematical model that it uses to key out the background for the clip. To use this method, the clip must have at least one reference frame—a frame that shows just the green screen background with nothing in the foreground.
It's okay if the frame includes areas beyond the edges of the green screen, such as the area above the screen where there are clamps that hold the screen. You will mask these out later by use of tools in the software’s control panel.
A reference frame contains only green screen but no subject. Ultra 2 builds a model that you can think of as a map of all the pixels in the green screen. This is called the key. When it compares this saved key with the pixels in a clip with both subject and green screen present, it replaces all pixels that are the same as the pixels in the key. What do they get replaced with? The pixels in the background image which you must load in separately.
The result of this substitution is a clip that has background pixels around the subject rather than green screen pixels. So if you shoot a clip of Joe talking in front of a green screen, but you give the program an image of a beach as a background, good old Joe will be shown talking at the beach! Even more cool is the fact that if you load the background layer with a clip of the waves coming in to the beach, Joe will then be in front of an active beach scene with waves. And there may even be pretty ladies walking by, if that's the background clip that you shot.
In essence, then, use of a green screen means that you can now insert any subject into any clip or image. You can see why movies make so much use of green screens. They allow actors to do location shots without actually ever going outside the production studio!
And you can do amazing special effects with keying software as well. For instance, Ultra 2 allows extra layers behind and in front of the subject layer. And if you forget to shoot a reference frame, you can click various green screen points in the clip that was shot with the subject, and the program will figure out the keying frame to use in place of the keying frame you forgot.
Some video editors will do keying using just one color of green to figure out the pixels in the subject layer that should be replaced with the background pixels. This is very convenient when you use an editor but have no keying software like Ultra 2. But it requires very good lighting of the green screen or the result is very poor. Excellent lighting of the green screen is not as easy as you would think.
But there is an exception. If you are using a small green screen to put behind a talking head, lighting is easy. In our movie, we had to light a 15 x 11 foot green screen on the wall as well as a 10 x 15 foot green screen on the floor. The lighting, as you can imagine, was very challenging. Without a very competent keying program, the whole project would have been a disaster!
How did we make the actor’s shadows? Happily, there is a shadows tool in the Ultra 2 control panel that allows you to add the needed shadows in the scene. This ties the subject into the video clip so it looks like the clip was shot with the subject in the scene in the first place.
Sometimes we create a clip with Ultra 2 and then turn around and use the clip we just made for either the background layer or the subject layer in Ultra 2. Other times we just take a finished Ultra 2 clip and use it in our video editing program. This is the usual method. Either layer can be an image or a clip.
You may have noticed that the video behind the three characters is a bit jumpy and fuzzy when the characters are walking right through one of our model layout's towns, and you probably wondered why. We don't blame you. The miracle is that we were able to get this type of video at all.
The width of an N-scale street is very small. It's way too small for any normal camera to move along it. So we used a 1-inch wide camera we got for 45 bucks. No other camera is small enough to fit. The darned thing works but it has no settings or adjustments. It is on or off.
We had to put 200 watt bulbs every 2 feet over each town since it handles light so poorly. It also handles close object shooting badly. But it's the only camera on the planet whose lens shoots half inch off the ground—just right for our needs. It has one other problem. If you push it down a street, the result is way too jumpy. So we had to tape it to the front of a tiny N-scale car and fasten a long stick to this car and then push as steadily as we could.
The result is there now is a way to walk around an N-scale layout as if you are one of the tiny 1/2 inch tall people glued into various scenes. As far as we know, no one has done this before, so we're happy to be first. The video's not great, but we're just glad it all worked! We just pretend that the characters need new glasses! In truth, though, many Hollywood scenes are purposely shot with the characters in focus and the background out of focus for various effects. Let’s just say we did that too, okay?
A keying program has limits, and so does a video editor like the one we use—Media Studio Pro 7. This is no longer being sold by Ulead, the program’s author. However, Media Studio Pro 8 is sold by Corel, which bought Ulead. They also offer VideoStudio® Pro X5 and VideoStudio® Pro X5 Ultimate as well as Corel VideoStudio Express 2010.
There are plenty of video editing software choices out there. Just search the internet for video editing software.
Anyway, a video editor makes finished clips whereas a keyer—also called a compositor—makes clips to insert in your video editor. The video editors mostly do one-color keying if they do it at all. But the keying software does green screen maps where many shadows and brightness variations are tolerated. The result is excellent.
Video editors, on the other hand, are very good at a great many editing tasks. They have motion paths. These will allow you to move images around in front of a background in a variety of ways. They can rotate, come closer by getting bigger, move away by getting smaller, change shape, and so on.
Video editors have libraries of special effects that use video filters, audio filters, and transition effects. An example of the latter is when you see one part of the movie smoothly transition to another scene, using a crossfade to fade one out while fading the other in.
Examples of audio filters are amplification, echo, and resonance. Examples of video filters are spotlight, fireworks, pan and zoom, and there are dozens more.
When our movie shows you a young lady flying through the air, tumbling and squirming to get free of her ropes, and the background is panning by, this required a lot of steps:
Photographing the squirming lady in front of the green screen
Capturing the clip from the camera so it becomes an AVI file
Putting the clip into Ultra 2 and selecting the segment of the clip to use
Loading a pure green background into Ultra 2
Keying the lady clip in the control panel so that the green screen with brightness and color and shadow variations she was shot in front of disappears and gets replaced by the pure green pixels
Outputting the Ultra 2 clip in AVI form
Loading this clip into our video editor
Adding an overlay option to this clip in the editor: keying out the pure green so the background is shown around the subject
Adding a pan and zoom video filter to the background clip, specifying the pan and zoom characteristics we want by using the filter’s controls, or using a clip that was shot to pan a certain train layout area
Adding a motion path effect to the clip of the lady and selecting to have her tumble slowly by use of precise controls
Using transitions to put her smoothly into the scene
Adding audio, such as music or sound effects, and adding audio filters to these
Usually we don’t use Ultra 2 to place a plain background of green behind a subject, but since video editors can only use their overlay options to turn a single color invisible, and keyers do not have motion paths or video filters, we had to get all the pixels around the lady totally invisible. Had we used the clip of her in front of the green screen, the result would have been a hopeless mess no matter how much we adjusted the overlay option’s color keyer.
Normally we use Ultra 2 to put a subject in front of the background required by the movie and this clip of combined subject and background is simply added to the movie’s video editor timeline as finished footage.
Before you rush out and buy Ultra 2, you should know that it doesn’t exist anymore. However it was bought by Adobe which now uses the technology in a couple of their current programs.
These are Visual Communicator 3 and Premiere Elements. Adobe Premiere Elements 7 provided a new feature called VideoMerge which is vector keying, but made easier to use. VideoMerge allowed keying effects to be performed in the editing process, rather than requiring extra steps in an external program or mode. As of Creative Suite 5 (released April 2010), a plugin labeled 'Ultra' is now present in Adobe Premiere Pro. It is a powerful but simplified keying solution compared to Adobe's flagship and more extensive 'Keylight' plugin for Adobe After Effects.
How well do these programs work? We have no idea. But since we know that Ultra 2 is an excellent program and its technology is in these products, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they work well too.
There are plenty of keying software choices out there. Just search the internet for keying software.
So what about the studio we used? Where in Hollywood did we go? Okay, that last was a joke. With the advent of cheap digital video cameras for consumers as well as cheap green screens, now everyone thinks they are Steven Spielberg! Think about stuff you’ve seen on YouTube.
Here's what we did: We turned our own living room into a temporary production studio and advertised for actors. The living room needed four pieces of four by eight ½ inch plywood under the floor green screen. Why? Because if the actors walked on a green screen covered rug, the walking-caused wrinkles and the shadows thrown by the wrinkles would have kept changing the pixels that the camera saw. Once the clip got into Ultra 2, whatever key we would use would be quite inaccurate, since there can only be one key and yet the floor would need hundreds because of the inconsistencies.
It took a lot of furniture moving. We also hung a backlight from the ceiling (which is very high). We also fastened two light-holder poles to the valences above our curtains, then taped shop lights to these poles. With very strong clamps, we clipped the green screen to the valence, which is 8 feet off the floor.
The lighting required 4 shop lights for the green screen, one overhead light, and 4 more lights on tripods to light the actors, also called the talent. The diagram shows a simpler 4-light scheme, since a 9-light scheme like we used would have made the diagram too complex.
The lighting situation was very challenging. Green screen lighting has to be separate from talent lighting. Not following this rule will cause shadows from the talent to fall upon the green screen, screwing up the keying operations once your clip gets into your keyer. So talent, like green screens, get lit mostly from the side. Often, barn doors are used on lights to keep the light from throwing shadows onto the green screen. These are usually black, hinged little doors on the sides of professional lights. We clipped aluminum foil squares on the sides of our lights to save us the cost of the barn doors. They worked peachy.
We extended long, thick extension cords from a couple different rooms and added these sources to our living room’s circuit to distribute the electrical load among 3 different circuits. This prevented thrown circuit breakers.