Nina in No Limits

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Nina in No Limits In Quicktime (12.5 Meg)

For those that would like their very own DVD in full resolution, please send an email for instructions on how to get your free copy to skye@fll-freak.com

Authors Biography:

Ken Streeter and I (Skye Sweeney) are both software engineers living and working in southern New Hampshire. Neither of us fit the typical nerdy 'pocket protector' programmer, but we are both technically bent. We each are coaches of our own FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams. Ken heads up (with his co-coach) Mindstorms Mayhem and I head up the Tekno Devils. Both of our teams have done very well in the past. Mindstorms Mayhem has won the New Hampshire state Director's Award in 2003 and in 2004 as well as being the World champions in 2003. The Tekno Devils won a state Director's Award in 2002 and a second place Director's Award in 2004. The two teams have won numerous other awards in local and state tournaments. Ken's team is a home school team and mine is a neighborhood team.

Production Notes

The Teaser:
Starting right after the 2003 FLL season, Ken and I started planning the 2004 animation. Job one was to improve the picture quality. I researched various camera systems and finally purchased a SONY DCR-HC85 MiniDV digital camcorder. The camera has full manual controls and fantastic optics. Its output is DVD quality and streams its data by FireWire to my capture software.

We next had meetings with FIRST to try to dovetail the video with the support material they were creating for the new challenge. Over the summer we started receiving the back up material for review. This material became the "Late for Lunch" storyline. The early access allowed us to request small changes to make a cohesive package.

In late summer we received prototypes of the mat and field pieces. This allowed Ken and me to finalize some of the details in the script we had written. The script was sent off to FIRST for approval. Unlike last year, this year's script needed approval due to the sensitive nature of the challenge. After a few iterations, we satisfied the review board as well as ourselves. Final approval was received in late August.

At about this time, we were asked if it would be possible to provide a teaser for the movie at the September 15th kickoff. We looked at the script and realized that the first scene would make a nice teaser. We focused our attention on this first scene. It would turn out to be the most difficult and time consuming scene of the whole movie. It took several weeks just to build the set and prepare for filming. A special device had to be made to get the camera to follow Nina as she walks down the street. The actual filming took 10 straight hours. Another 10 hours were spent in post production adding in the special effect of the door talking.

The voice of Nina is a young lady that has been on my team from day one. I liked her voice and she lives close by for easy last minute recordings.

The voice of Dr. Justin Case does not appear in the Teaser but does in the movie. This voice is acted by Henry Castonguay, a science teacher in the Nashua New Hampshire school district.

The voice of Door is a voice synthesizer called FreeTTS. It runs on Windows. A fellow FLL coach (Paul Lamere) was on the team that wrote this software. You can find information about it at http://www.sourceforge.net

With only 8 days left before kickoff, I delivered the raw footage to Ken just as he lost his C drive on his video editing computer. Ken had to first rebuild his computer before he could even start editing. Ken worked hard to edit the footage and add all the sound effects. Trying to get the balance between all the sounds is a hard job. With 3 days to go, Ken finished the job and we sent the teaser to FIRST.

And then with only 2 days to go, he was forced to make a few last minute changes to the credits to satisfy the lawyers.

Kickoff was a success. I have not gotten the final count for how often the movie was downloaded, but I have gotten a fair amount of feedback.

The Movie

No sooner were we done with the teaser than I started filming the rest of the movie. As I did in previous years, I filmed most of the laboratory scenes first. This year the Test-O-Matic pixelation special effect was rather time consuming. It at least doubled the effort to get all the special pictures I would need for the post production work.

When the critical office scenes were done, I switched my effort to the scenes on the mat. My first problem was to find an appropriate background. The background for the street scene had been a few yards of a 'blue sky with clouds' fabric. It worked very well so I went back to the fabric store looking for "Virtual World" backgrounds. The sales lady was at first a little puzzled, but quickly figured out what I wanted and yanked a dozen bolts for me to consider. When I saw the wild oscillating pattern I was hooked. I purchased 4 yards and went home for a camera test. The fabric was wrapped around sheets of foam core board. They were light and easy to position. All in all I think it worked out very nicely.

I then had to construct all the special props and make test runs to verify camera angles. It was then I discovered that my new camera posed one problem. The lens was positioned much higher preventing "in the face" scenes. I was forced to build a special tripod to hold the camera upside down. This placed the lens at minifig eye level, but all the pictures were inverted adding more time in post production.

Filming took longer this year. Partly because the local tournaments were much earlier in New Hampshire making me spend more time with my team and partly because I was more demanding in quality. As I finished a scene, I would hand it off to Ken for inclusion in the movie.

After producing the Teaser in Pinnacle's Studio software, Ken elected to try a software package with more capability. Besides numerous hourly crashes, Studio is limited to just three audio tracks. Making a richly layered sound track with music, sound effects, and dialogue is too difficult with just three tracks. After some careful comparisons, Ken purchased the Adobe Premiere editing software.

I don't think Ken was quite prepared for the huge learning curve of Premiere. This software product has vastly more capabilities and hence a huge number of menu items, knobs, and switches. Just visiting all the menus can take a good chunk of time let alone trying to figure out what they all do! His first challenge was simply to duplicate his own efforts to remake the Teaser. Once he passed this hurdle, he knew enough to add video clips, add simple transitions, and use multiple audio tracks.

Just when he was ready to start the full movie, we got hit by local tournament season, and overtime at work. So in true FLL style the final editing was done the night before the world premiere.

The first tournaments to use the movie were in Mexico, Canada, and the Netherlands over Thanksgiving weekend. These disks were to be hand delivered by FIRST personnel helping with the tournament, or sent by FedEx. Ken made the disks needed and we meet at the FIRST headquarters for the premiere. The whole FIRST FLL crew was packed into a conference room to watch the movie. No sooner was it over than the disks got grabbed by people on their way to catch planes.

The music
How I hate music. I love to listen to it, but hate to find music for videos. If you are making a home video, you can use the audio track from any source. It may not be strictly legal, but who will ever know? When you make a video for Worldwide viewing of 50,000 people, you can't take legal shortcuts. Very early on I started to listen to music with an ear to the movie. As the time got closer, I would sometimes listen to 50 or more compositions a night looking for something I could use. I was looking for a classical piece from a very dead composer whose work was in the public domain. Nothing jumped out. Finally for the Teaser I settled on a MIDI composition of "Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman" by Mozart. But I panicked when I could not contact the MIDI author for permission. An intensive hunt on the web tracked the person down and I got permission to use it.

But the music did not quite fit what I had in mind. One day on the way home from work, I heard "I can see clearly now" on the radio. What a perfect song! Nina can see clearly because of the glasses! I turned to the internet and found the copyright holder. After a telephone call and a fax exchange, I finally got to talk to the lawyers that represented the owner. I explained that I was a non-profit and wanted to use the melody and not an actual performance.So after some haggling, I was offered the bargain basement price of USA $32,000.00.

I do get a small budget from FIRST for the movie. It has never been enough to cover my costs but it does offset them. From that budget I allocate $200.00 to music. So all I needed to do was figure out where to get a spare $31,800.00. Bake sale anybody?

At this point I decided that commissioning music might be the simplest approach. I put out a request out on the web and within days started getting samples. I finally selected Monty Harper’s Skeleton Dance because it seemed to fit just right. Monty gave me a scare when he reported back that he could not find the original MIDI files. He needed them in order to provide me sections of the music that would loop properly. Luckly he found them and was able to deliver the needed music. He has a website at www.montyharper.com.

Interesting Facts



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Copyright 2003-2006 Skye Sweeney; Last Updated on 2/16/2006