AMVs, or anime music videos, have always been a mainstay of anime conventions; nowadays, with the popularity of YouTube and other viral video websites, AMVs are dangerously close to cracking mainstream awareness. A search for AMV on the afore-mentioned YouTube pulls up over one million videos. Animemusicvideos.org, the hub for all things AMV, boasts over 40,000 creators and nearly 115,000 videos. So, right about now you’re thinking – I like anime and I like music! I want to impress my friends and thousands of complete strangers! I want to be considered the next Fellini, the next Bruckheimer, the next Smith! How, o wise one, can I create an AMV?
Well, I’ll tell you, but I’m an old fart, so you’ll have to sit through a history lesson first.
Fan productions have been around for as long as fandom itself. Filk, a staple of science fiction fandom since the 1950s, can be considered the grandfather of the AMV movement. Both are musical tributes to their respective genres, both are usually performed late at night at conventions, and both have created rabid clusters of fans within the structure of the larger fan base. The primary difference is that, while filk is largely a group activity – a bunch of fans getting together to sing ribald Klingon bandies after a hard day of Trekking, AMVs are more of a spectator sport, or, if you prefer, a gallery showing. There is very little spontaneous about an AMV – creators can take 50 hours or more to put together four minutes of escapism, and the audience for the work can be as large as all the users of the Internet, or as small as one.
The first AMV contest I saw was in 1997 at Otakon, back when Otakon was still in its infancy, and I was instantly hooked. The notion of matching anime clips to music to create a story was so foreign to me, and yet so appealing. I was shocked at the variety of videos – some followed the story arc of the anime series, some focused on a sub-story, and some took footage from the anime to tell a completely different story. The level of creativity was incredible, but the videos were all limited by the technology of the day. DVDs weren’t easily available; the Internet was still dial-up, so you couldn’t download a series; the best source you could hope for was Laserdisc, and those were prohibitively expensive. Most videos were made deck-to-deck; in other words, a creator used two VCRs, one for playback and one for recording, and then dubbed the audio track in afterward. The truly lucky ones had access to video editing equipment at school or work; even then, timing and effects were minimal, and AMVs were driven by their narrative.
The earliest home computer system truly capable of editing video was the Commodore Amiga. With the Video Toaster system, creators were able to improve a video’s timing and even begin beat-synching, a technique of matching the visual beats of an action sequence to the aural beats in a musical piece. Creators were able to add special effects and transitions to their work, to eliminate video tracking artifacts from their footage, and store their final product electronically. While Commodore may well be forgotten in the lore of personal computing, I’m thankful for the Amiga – it brought digital editing to the home. More specifically, that dark room in the basement that kinda smells funny, but to the home, nonetheless.
Nowadays, personal computers are so powerful that a middle-of-the-line laptop can be used as a video deck, and there are more editing programs out there than I can possibly name: from the simple (Windows Movie Maker) to the arcane (Adobe After Effects). As the technology has advanced, more and more people have entered the hobby, to the point that AMVs now rival cosplay as the largest subset of anime fandom.
Hmm? Hey, wake up! I’m getting to the good part.
Here’s what you’ll need to create an AMV:
A computer. Yes, you could go old-school and work with two VCRs, or a VCR/DVD combo, but why would you? Any computer 5 years old or less can make a decent AMV, but the more recent the system, the easier and faster the process can be. My recommended base minimum system: 2+ GHz processor, 1+ GB RAM, 120+ GB hard drive space, DVD-R drive, good graphics and sound cards, and a 19” flat panel monitor. This should only set you back around $500-800, depending on the brand name. A faster processor will help render your video more quickly, depending on how much RAM you have – the more RAM, the less the system will have write to the hard drive. Hard drive space is important, since your work files will most likely be in the gigabytes. A better, bigger monitor and graphics card will help you see more of your video as you’re working with it, and give you a more accurate sense of how it will look on the big screen, should you decide to send it in for competition.
Video editing software. If you have Windows XP, you already have an editing program on your system: Windows Movie Maker. It’s not the most robust editor, but it’s easy to use and it will initiate you to the basics of editing, such as timelines, transitions, etc. Once you’re done with WMM, or if you want to dive in a little deeper, there are dozens of freeware editing programs out there, or you can download trial versions of Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, or Final Cut Pro (for Mac users) directly from their websites. I recommend playing with as many different programs as you can until you find a program that is easy and enjoyable to use. A quick tip – if you decide to buy video editing software, be aware that some video editing software is very expensive. You can get Adobe and other products at a discount if you are a student or educator. You can also find earlier versions of the software for sale on eBay.
Video and audio sources. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: unless you own the rights to the video and audio you are using, you will be in violation of copyright law. DO NOT ASSUME that since you are re-editing the video that you are creating original content. The only rights you have to your final video product are to your edits. Now I’m not trying to discourage anyone from making an AMV. I’m just asking you, as a creator, to be aware of the responsibilities of AMV creation. For example, DO NOT create a DVD with your AMVs to sell. DONOT set up a showing of your AMVs and charge admission. DONOT use your AMVs to promote a service or business.
DO NOT, PLEASE DO NOT send your AMV to the band and ask them what they think of it. This is not a joke – someone sent an Evanescence AMV to Amy Lee and asked her if the band had made the video. She apparently turned it over to her management company, who sent a Cease and Desist order to Animemusicvideos.org. All videos with music from Evanescence, Creed and two other bands had to be removed from the website. Needless to say, this put a scare into the entire AMV community. While the anime industry secretly supports the hobby, the music industry is … well, the music industry, so please be smart about your videos.
An idea. Without a basic structure on which to hang the footage, your video will just be a bunch of random clips set to music. Your idea can take the form of a story, a running joke, a visual theme – really, the idea is the backbone of the video. It may be as simple as, “When I hear this song, I think about that anime.” Just make sure that your idea can carry you through the entire song/audio clip. My drives are littered with half-finished videos and one-joke projects, ideas that had come and gone quick as a blink. Don’t be afraid to put an idea down if it’s not working for you. Do not force your footage, because your audience will pick up on it – even if that audience is just you.
So, with those four items at your disposal, you are ready to start creating. Since every program is different, I can’t give you specific tips – that’s what the help files are for. I can give you some general guidelines to keep in mind – these will work no matter what type of software you’re using.
Don’t go special effects crazy on your first video. Effects are fun, especially when used in the context of a video’s narrative. Gratuitous effects can make a video difficult to watch, though. I encourage you to experiment with effects and combinations of effects, but when you’re ready to build your video, keep your story in mind first. Subtlety is good, but timing is even better. Some of the best videos have no effects at all.
Time your video one frame ahead of the audio. If your video editing software allows you to see a waveform of your audio source (and most do), be sure to expand that to see exactly where the beats in the song lay. When you put your video footage in the timeline, move the action you’d like to synch with the music one frame ahead of the beat. This will give you a crisp, well-timed video.
Look out for orphan frames in your footage. An orphan frame is a frame from the previous or next scene, and will show up at the beginning or end of the clip you’re working with. It’s a good idea to magnify the timeline as much as possible to look for and clip those extra frames – there’s little as distracting as a one-frame flash during a video.
Don’t use downloaded footage. And not just because of copyright issues – there’s more than one reason to buy the DVDs. First, you don’t want subtitles, network logos, or watermarks appearing in your work, it’s distracting and tacky. Second, downloaded footage is already compressed; invariably, there will be artifacts and blurring in the footage, and it’ll only get worse as you edit with it. Just like a photocopy of a photocopy, the quality of your video will suffer.
Check out Animemusicvideos.org before you start a project. It’s a good idea to check out the ‘org, just to see if someone’s tried your combination of music and anime before. Have they told the story you want to tell? Have they covered ground you didn’t consider? Can you bring new ideas or a new perspective to the story? I don’t want to tell you not to make a Linkin Ball Z video, but if you are, you better bring your A++ game, since it’s been done so many times before.
Compress your video and audio when you compile your video. An uncompressed AVI AMV can register in the gigabytes, and no one wants to have to torrent a single AMV. DivX and Xvid are excellent choices for video compression, and you should compress the audio to mp3. This’ll turn a 2GB file into a 50MB file, much easier for folks to download. Of course, if you’re entering your video into a competition, make sure to follow the standards set by the contest organizer.
Have fun. Keep in mind that all rules are made to be broken (except the one about sending AMVs to bands, that one’s real) and enjoy yourself. The minute you start pressing, stop. Take a break. Look outside. Better yet, go outside. Don’t live by contest deadlines – instead, take your time with your video and submit it to whatever’s open when you’re done. Tell your story at your pace, for there will always be an audience. I look forward to seeing what you’ve created.
Some useful links for aspiring creators:
Animemusicvideos.org – the community for creators. You can join for free, but I highly recommend donating. There are also guides written by the AMV gods themselves for your perusal.