Robot Roundup

About a year ago, after months of intense research, I bought a Panasonic HVX-200a so that I could finally get into filmmaking and editing. I'd put off the purchase for a while, but eventually, after reading a plethora of positive reviews from satisfied customers, I bit the bullet and bought this sweet video camera... and a tripod... and a case, extra batteries, battery charger, mountable light, field mixer, cables, mic, boom, warranty, and of course, Final Cut Studio 2. Well, come on - I didn't want to just dip my toes in the water - I jumped in up to my neck. Maybe even my nose.

The HVX-200a doesn't really shoot on tape - technically, it can; it does have a tape slot - but no one buys this camera to use the tape function; it's really just a backup feature. The camera stores footage directly on P2 cards, which creates a very clean (if sometimes slow, and always expensive) workflow. My camera came with a single 16 GB P2 card, which at a medium level of quality (720p) stores about 40 minutes of footage. At the highest level (1080p) it stores only about 20 minutes. Want to guess how much a 16 GB P2 card costs? Around $1,200. Yeah. It's serious stuff, but the quality is nice, you see! I'm still saving up to buy a second one.

After a few months of shooting tests, I decided to do a little project to help me improve both my shooting and editing skills. And since we had a (then) three-month-old baby in the house with clear got star power, I made the decision to center the project on him.

Nico emotes.

Since my nieces Amy and Julie had sent Nico a cowboy outfit and matching horse puppet before he was born, I let that dictate the theme. Keeping with this "whatever's at hand" sensibility, I noted that I owned a lot of robots, including a Robosapien (which is remote controlled), so I devised a simple plot involving Nico the Kid and his old pal Cholera the Horse (no idea how the name came to me, except it sounded good with a country-style accent) fighting five robots. For a first "real" film project, that loose concept seemed just enough to work with.

I didn't write a script because that seemed pretty pointless. Nico is a baby, after all. Instead, I staged and lit the locations (a few rooms in our house) and started shooting master shots, over-the-shoulder shots and closeups. Sharon and I took turns operating Cholera, varying the pauses in his mouth movements. We didn't actually record any dialogue while shooting - I figured I'd just write that after we were done. That turned out to be the way to go, since it would have been tough to get a mic close to my mouth (hidden under a blanket or behind pillows), and Nico wouldn't have sat around for re-takes anyway. Half the time we weren't even holding Cholera while Nico shot his closeups - he was just watching Sharon or I dancing around and/or making silly faces. And all Nico's reverse shots (where you see only his hat and boot) were faked - we put the clothes on a teddy bear and I wiggled them a little off-camera. See? The eye can be fooled.

Other tricks were used - for example, the robots' dramatic turns to the camera were accomplished by standing them on a book, then spinning the book on the carpet. For Nico's ride on Cholera, I shot close and rotated around him as an axis, as Sharon slowly spun his body, maximizing the usability of the small room.

I used natural light enhanced by a few practical lights, but no actual professional lights - though I could have used them. The earlier shots worked out pretty well (thank you, sun), but the shots in Nico's room could have benefited from at least one soft box - though it would probably not have fit into the smallish room. Maybe the next project will require some set-building to create Nico's "Room Set".

After three weekends of shooting (including one weekend of reshoots - I didn't like the way the robots were lit initially), I had enough footage to fill out the story. I did a rough edit, and as I did so, the dialogue (still unrecorded) started taking shape. After the edit was fairly complete, I recorded the dialogue, rearranging, extending and shortening shots of Cholera to match the words as close as possible. It was a strange way to work, but it did allow for some creative compromises.

Nico's co-star in Robot Roundup, the disturbingly-named Cholera.

The longest sequence to put together was the robots' introductions. Aligning the text properly, giving each of the five shot elements consistent transition effects, working in the narration, getting the timing right (I had to loop a few shots to extend them - didn't shoot long enough) - that was a full afternoon, though it seems to work well in its final form.

I added opening graphics, composed music, added sound effects and created a few more editing effects in Final Cut. I did some practice exports, trying out different audio and video settings to maximize quality while reducing file size. All in all, the project took about 30 hours - much longer than I'd anticipated, but I'd learned a lot about my camera and editing. "More knowledge for the arsenal," I always say (never said that, actually, but I may from now on.)

And then I looked into HD video hosting sites. I looked into Vimeo, but after a few tries (each taking half an hour), I kept having issues with the aspect ratio of my video. Then I found Exposure Room, which converted my .mov file to its own format, retaining the proper aspect ratio (no stretching, squashing, or black bars) the very first time. I'm a simple man, so this won me over.

One of the Robot Posse - the irrepressible Rodney.

Robot Roundup has had many online viewings (on Exposure Room and elsewhere) so far, and has won Nico fans of all ages - many of whom look forward to his next cowboy adventure. There may never be one - not as elaborate as Robot Roundup, anyway (sorry). Nico has seen the video a few times, but we're not sure if he even recognizes Nico the Kid as himself - and maybe that's for the better. I fantasize about hiding the movie from him for the next 13 or 14 years, then renting a local theater, inviting all of his teenage friends and screening the film. What a fun surprise that would be!

Check out Robot Roundup on Exposure Room.

A few other fun facts for the Robot Roundup completists out there (these may be more fun after you've seen the movie):

• in the original HD footage, you can see a reflection in Nico's eyes of Sharon (and not Cholera) in some shots (we'll correct this in the five year anniversary re-release)

• the Atari joystick in the early shots is not an actual joystick from the 2600, but is in fact an Atari Classics self-contained game device that you hook up directly to your TV - now that's progress!

• Nico makes a little giggle in one of his reaction shots - this wasn't live audio, but was actually recorded on my cell phone days after shooting had ended

• an original ending where everyone was to their differences peacefully, by talking, was scrapped when Nico became crabby toward the end of the shoot - instead, we just had them duke it out, Wild West-style

• the Robosapien playing Shazbot laid on the ground for about half an hour after being knocked down in his final shot - as Sharon and I were cleaning up the room, we discovered an Easter Egg - sitting there quietly, he suddenly lifted his arms dramatically and said a single word: "Rosebud"


  1. Wow, that was pretty humorous. I especially love the cereal (in a picnic basket!) and Nico's facial expressions whilst someone is waving a puppet in front of his face. Something about the robots' destruction also made me laugh (the way Spinhead fell over was great). You did most admirably for an experiment. I wonder how Nico will appreciate it.

  2. Thanks Steven. Yes, young babies and horses should always have their Cheerios. What's funny was, he didn't eat solid foods back then, now he does, and he really loves that cereal.

    Thanks for checking it out. Nico is mildly amused at it now, but I don't think it can hold a candle to Elmo's World or Sponge Bob.