Video Slideshows with Aperture and Final Cut

Posted on May 28, 2008. Filed under: Photography |

Related: Same workflow using iMovie ’09 instead of Final Cut Pro, in Video Slideshows With iMovie ’09

As our kids go through season after season of sports, I’ve taken the opportunity to bring my photography into my spectatorship. Each season for the past several years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time capturing pictures of their games, and then even more time at the end of the season wrapping the last several months’ worth of pictures into a slideshow. I’ve decided that this is something I do often enough that I’ve found a pretty optimal workflow, but not often enough to remember the details the next time I go through it. So, as much for my benefit as yours, here is my general workflow for assembling the final slideshow.

Note that I am using Aperture 2.1, iDVD, and Final Cut Studio 2 (Final Cut Pro and Motion, specifically) to do this project. You could accomplish the same with iPhoto and Final Cut Express, although the iPhoto organization workflow is a bit different than Aperture’s, and FCE will require the use of its built-in titling instead of Motion for opening/closing titles. You could also use DVD Studio Pro instead of iDVD, although personally I prefer the interface of iDVD and generally have not hit any annoying limitations there (this DVD is fairly straightforward, little more than a delivery mechanism for the slideshow). Note that iMovie will not work for this purpose, primarily because it is impossible to set markers down at the audio beats. If you don’t want the slide transitions timed to the music then that might be adequate, but I find that seriously distracts from the overall slideshow.

Finally, the time commitment for this project varies. Not counting the up-front time taking and cataloguing the source pictures, compiling the slideshow can take anywhere from 2 hours to several days (wholly dependent upon how much fine-tuning I decide to put into the particular slideshow). If this time commitment is too much, you should consider using an automated tool for the job instead (see the last section on Alternatives for a few links pointing you in the right direction).

Setup

First, a little file management. I like to keep my projects as organized as possible. This allows me to both not get lost now, while I’m working on it, and to be able to look at what I’d done while planning out next year’s project.

  1. Create a folder for the slideshow project. I put this in a “Projects” folder, which contains all the video or DVD projects I’ve ever done, categorized by year and topic (“2008 Softball”).
  2. Inside that folder, create multiple subfolders, including “Pics”, “Titles”, “Music”, and “Output”.

Photo Management

Throughout the season, I have been taking pictures. My general workflow is documented already, and largely remains unchanged for this type of project. After each game, I:

  1. First-pass the pictures of the game (separating any family pictures which mean something to me but which I wouldn’t want to share with the rest of the parents into their own project). The output of this step is a set of starred photos which should be significantly smaller than the overall set of photos.
  2. Apply a jersey-vibrancy color correction across all pictures. The idea is to make our team’s jersey “pop” just a little more than natural.
  3. Apply any cropping, highlight/shadows corrections, etc, as needed. For the most part, any softball pictures which include batters in their helmets will need some shadows adjustments; care needs to be taken to not overdo this or the result will look more like a cartoon than a photo.
  4. Add any comments on the specific picture to the version name and/or comments
  5. Collect all one-star-or-better pictures from the game, create a new Web Gallery of the selected versions, and upload to my .Mac server (hiding the album, allowing addition of pictures, allowing download of original size images).

On previous seasons I’d also tagged each image at this point with the key actors in the picture. This season I skipped that step, as I didn’t have the goal of compiling a scrapbook-per-player. That said, more than once I kicked myself when I couldn’t with any certainty say that I had a picture of a given girl. Next season, I won’t be taking that particular shortcut (which, truthfully, didn’t save much time in the first place).

At the end (although it obviously could well have been done beforehand), I selected all the pictures of the team (by clicking on each web gallery in turn and selecting all) and applied a single keyword to them all (“Sports > Softball / Baseball > 2008 – The Blue Angels”).

I then went through each gallery, sorting the various actions (“Sports > Softball / Baseball > Actions”) between “Offense > Base-Running”, “Offense > Batting”, “Defense > Pitching”, “Defense > Catching”, and “Defense > Fielding”. I also have top-level “Cheering” and “Goofing” actions. I set up a keyword button set to include each of these base actions, as well as the “Offense” and “Defense” general groups. Working my way through each gallery, I would select all contiguous “batting” pictures, and click on the “Batting” button, etc.

In my case, I wanted to sort the slideshows so that the “early season” (meaning, all the way up to the final game of the mid-season tournament) was the first group, then the climactic mid-season game was the second group, then everything “late-season” was the third group. To give better continuity, I chose to place all offensive plays before all defensive plays in the early season (helps the viewer track who is doing what in the pictures as they zip by), and the same in the late season, but to keep the climactic game properly chronologically ordered. To do this, I set up three smart albums (based on the “2008” level of my project folder hierarchy so that it would include anything taken Fed through June, yet not have to filter through the tons of older photos):

  1. All Blue Angels” – this includes all starred images with the “2008 – The Blue Angels” keyword.
  2. Blue Angels Offense” – this includes the above, but also requiring the “Offense” keyword (note that “Batting” is in the “Offense” group and so is included in this filter, as an example)
  3. Blue Angels Defense” – this is the same as above, but the filter is for “Defense” instead of “Offense”

One thing which annoys me with albums in general is that all smart albums lose their “custom” ordering. A few sets of pictures were unstacked continuous-shot groups, with as many as 6 containing the same timestamp. This befuddles the Aperture ordering algorithm, which tries next to order by version name. Nothing wrong with that, until you give one or two of them a descriptive title instead of the IMG_1234.CR2 name your camera came up with. What I’d like to do next is drag the first half of the “Offense” album into a new album, then the first half of the “Defense” album, then the climactic middle of the “All” album, then the last bits of “Offense” and then “Defense”. But, if I do that, then go back to the new album, we quickly find that everything is back to “timestamp ordered” (with version name as the secondary sort), exactly how we don’t want it.

So, here’s my trick:

  1. Create a new custom metadata field called “Order”. You can do this by clicking on the “Metadata” tab, clicking “Other” at the bottom, then typing “Order” and “010” into the name and value fields then press enter. This puts the given field on the currently selected primary photo.
  2. Select the group of photos we want sorted first (the first half of Offense).
  3. Go to MetaData > Batch Change.
  4. Click on “Replace”, then next to “Order” type “010”. Hit “OK”.
  5. Repeat for each subsequent group
  6. Finally, in the “All” album, make sure the “Order” value is showing, and sort by it.

Oddly, when sorting by Order, the secondary sort appears to be master file name instead of version name. This just happens to be perfect (although it might be a problem if you are pulling from multiple cameras).

The final step in Aperture is to export all these photos, in order. I select them all (be sure to click on the first in the album list then Command-A), go to File > Export > Versions …, then use a custom file naming scheme I call “Custom Counter Version”. That particular file naming scheme uses “Custom Name”, then “Counter”, a hyphen, then “Version Name”. The “Counter” is set to four digits for me, as that is never too little. I export these pictures all into the “Pics” subfolder of the project. Then, I’m done in Aperture.

Note that I export them all as full-resolution JPEGs. This is primarily so that when I put them on the DVD-ROM portion of the disk they look as good as they possibly can. However, a case could be made to instead export only NTSC-boxed (fit within 720×480 rectangle) images in one folder and separately at full resolution for the DVD-ROM, assuming I’m not planning on doing any zooming-in or such.

Choosing Music

What music to use? Well, generally speaking we should limit ourselves to Creative Commons music that no one’s ever heard, or self-created music, or public domain performances. Depending on the size and composition of your audience, you may feel comfortable using copywrited materials from your own library.

In either case, one thing I do is keep a playlist in iTunes of “Soundtrack Favs”. As you might guess, these are the “short list” of tunes I’d generally consider using as a backing soundtrack to a slideshow or other video. Obviously, they are family-friendly songs, usually with some bit of quirkiness to them.

I choose the specific song by looking at the number of photos and the intended mood (do I want hyper-fast slides, 2 per second, or contemplative, 4 seconds each, or something in between?). In the Blue Angels’ case I knew I wanted a medium-paced slideshow, about 1.5-2 seconds per picture, although I also knew that I’d want a few burst of faster (sub-second) timings in groups. This left me at a little over four minutes.

Looking at the four minute songs, plus or minus 30 seconds, I then listened to every one of them (at least the , looking for one which both fits the intended mood and which has some special relevance.

Once I’ve picked the background music, it’s time to start working in Final Cut. I place it into Final Cut as the A1/A2 tracks. I double-click the track from the timeline to bring it up in the Viewer window. I then make the Viewer window as large as possible (I’ve saved a Max Viewer layout), set the playhead at the start, and listen through it again. This time, while listening, I lay down an audio marker at every beat (press the ‘m’ key at each downbeat).

I’ve played with doing this in SoundTrack, which provides a slightly better interface for marking the beats. However, I haven’t been able to get these markers to show up in Final Cut no matter what I do.

Once this step is done, moving back to the standard layout in FCP, we should see that the markers we’d laid out in the Viewer show up inside the timeline block. This is separate from “timeline” markers, which show up in the top ruler of the timeline. However, like “timeline” markers, when snapping is on, edits will “snap” to these markers. That’s the real key.

Adding Slides

Now, let’s save ourselves a bunch of time. Look at the timeline. Find a rather consistent beat (some songs will speed up and slow down throughout; we’re looking for a decent stretch where the beat is staying consistent). Set the playhead at the first beat of this section, and note the timecode. Move over ten markers, and lay the playhead back down. Now, look at the timecode again. Subtract the first timecode from the second. Multiply the seconds by 30 and add it to the frames part. Divide this by 10. This will tell us how many frames lie between each beat in that area (averaged across the ten beats).

In Final Cut Pro, go to Final Cut Pro > User Preferences … dialog. Click on the Edit tab, and modify the Still Frame Duration to be just this number of frames (enter “;32” for 32 frames, for instance: note that that is the semi-colon preceding the frames count).

Drag the entire Pics folder from Finder into the “bin” of Final Cut Pro. This should create an FC folder of the same name, with all the pictures inside.

Inside FCP, select all the pictures and drag them from the bin onto the timeline (make sure that when you release, the cursor is a downward-facing arrow, not a right-facing arrow; this is “overlay” versus “insert”).

Now, you should have a pretty good approximation of the slideshow, timed to the music. A little clean-up, making sure your pictures end on the beat consistently, and you could be good to go.

Add Titles

I do most of my titling for slideshows in Motion. I try not to have too many timing-specific transitions in the titles, so that I don’t have to match them up to the underlying music beats. However, if I do, then it’s easiest just to look at the frame timecodes for the beats in Final Cut and replicate that in Motion.

Note that titles can go “inside” the audio track (meaning, the background music is playing during the title) or “outside” the audio track (meaning, there is silence during the title), or somewhere in between (meaning, the music can start/end in the middle of the title).

Titles can likewise go “inside” or “outside” the slideshow. I tend to avoid putting them inside (overlaying) the slideshow as this distracts from the pictures of the slideshow. That having been said, I’ll often pick a “representative” photo to back the titles, and have it grayed out (de-saturated) under the titles.

Fine-Tune Pictures to Show

Most likely, you either have too many pictures for the song (the video track extends well past the audio track), or too few (the video track ends before the video track). There are four major changes which can be made to fix this situation:

  1. Change picture timings. If there are too many pictures, shorten the lead-in or trail-out pictures in a series. For instance, if you have five pictures of a player rounding bases then sliding home, maybe the first one is kept long, the next three half-sized, then the last one kept long (a 1.5 picture reduction). There is an art in shortening the right frames of a burst or series. Experiment with which you want to do and see what makes the right impact. If instead there are too few pictures, try expanding the timings on some shortened pictures, or hold one or two pictures to increase their effect.
  2. Add or remove pictures. Adding is easier than it sounds. You probably already have “loser” pictures which could go in a series (flashing by at half-duration no one will notice the runner was out of focus or the coach had stepped into the frame); this is where you take off the still-photographer hat and instead put on the videographer hat. Each frame in a movie isn’t perfect; instead, it lives on due to the excellence of its neighbors. Removing, on the other hand, is just as hard as it sounds. You simply have to suck it up and take the old writer’s advice: kill your babies without mercy.
  3. Titles can be moved inside (to pad) or outside (to reduce) the music track, and inside or outside the slideshow track. Generally, I have a good idea where I want the titles to be, more or less, and only give that up if I can’t live with any other choices. Still, there’s often wiggle-room there if push comes to shove.
  4. Manipulate the audio track to make it longer (find a repeatable section and clone it) or shorter (cut-out or fade-out early). This will almost always require a round-trip to the likes of Soundtrack. Luckily, such a round-trip won’t remove your beat marks, although obviously they may well be incorrect afterwards.

I try to generally settle on the content of the slide show at this stage. However, I take good notes on any “compromises” I made above, in case the next steps make it so I can undo one or two. I also keep note of the “next compromise” to be made if the next steps move in the opposite direction.

Fine-Tune Timings

Now that we have all our pictures lined up and the rough timings (one beat, two beats, half beats, etc) figured out, the next step is to fine-tune those timings.

Starting at the beginning of the timeline, I use the “Ripple Edit” tool (press ‘r’ twice) to “fix” each transition point to its nearby audio marker (the beat location). This tool changes the duration of the left picture, and shifts all pictures to the right to make room (alternatively, you can think of it as not changing any other durations). This is in contrast to the “roll tool”, which changes the duration to the left and inversely the duration of the next picture to the right; no other picture timings get shifted.

Once I’ve put everything “right” in the timeline, I maximize the output window (again, this is a convenient layout so I have it saved as a custom layout) and play the sequence through, paying attention to how well the pictures work with the underlying music. A double-speed series of shots will often seem “out of place” with the location it has fallen in the tune. The options here are simple:

  1. Move “standard” pictures from one side of the double-speed series to the other side, to move it “left” or “right” in the timeline.
  2. Make the series standard speed again. Obviously, you’ll have to compensate for this action elsewhere to keep the overall timings matched.

Once this fine-tuning is done with, I’ll often find that the video track has either shrunk or expanded beyond the audio track. I then loop back around to the previous step and either make more compromises or undo previous compromises to get things to match up again. After any changes there, I repeat this step (assuming I didn’t just remove or add something to the end of the video track).

Add Transitions and Effects

Once all the timings are down and locked in, I look at the slideshow to see if there are any transitions which make sense. Generally speaking, I find the straight-cut transition is the best approach most of the time, especially on fast-paced slideshows. However, on more ponderous slideshows a slight “Ken Burns” type effect can break up the monotony and enhance instead of distract.

Burning to Plastic Discs

Once the slideshow is complete, I save the output as a .mov file in the “output” folder. I then open up a new iDVD project (save it in the same folder structure as above), pick a template, and drop the movie on.

I also go into the DVD-ROM contents and add the entire contents of the “Pics” folder. This allows every recipient of the disk to take any of the included pictures and print them out without having to bother me about it later on.

I always do a two-step burn: first create the disk image, the burn it to plastic. This makes burning multiple copies fast and easy (no need to recreate the disk image for each output disk, just use Disk Utility to burn as many discs as necessary).

Alternatives

Obviously, a lot of people would be happy with just a standard-timed 3-4-seconds-per-image slideshow backed by random music, perhaps with a random Ken Burns effect thrown in. This workflow is obviously not for them. Still, I often find I’d be about 90% happy with such a thing, if only I could tweak it to get the last 10% out. Very few tools allow for this.

One “starting point” tool I haven’t played around with much is the ConnectedFlow Aperture-to-Final Cut plugin. It is a free tool which takes an album of pictures in Aperture and creates a timeline in Final Cut which contains them. This holds some great potential for simplifying a few of the steps above, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet (came across a link to it after I’d already done those first setup steps for this year’s slideshows).

Also, see the O’Reilly series on slideshows from Aperture for more options.

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7 Responses to “Video Slideshows with Aperture and Final Cut”

RSS Feed for Tom Dibble’s Nuggets of …  Wisdom? Comments RSS Feed

I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

Tom I coach a 7 yr old girls softball team and am going to try to make a slideshow dvd for them can you suggest some music. This seem to be the hardest part for me. Thanks

[…] Video Slideshows with Aperture and Final Cut, I got the following comment: Tom I coach a 7 yr old girls softball team and am going to try to […]

Donnie – Hopefully this helps: Picking Slideshow Music

[…] in the comfort of my home allows me to make the right choice for a particular product (ex, the end-of-season DVD) and change my approach for other products (ex, a single-frame blow-up of the […]

I use FotoMagico for slideshows – it’s just amazing. I’d guess you’d get 90% of the quality you work for above in 20% of the time. You can create audio markers in a song, and set the slides to transition on the markers. They look gorgeous, it’s resolution-independent (HD, SD, web) and fast (I usually play out of the laptop at 60FPS). I bring the images straight in from an Aperture album or Smart album.

I’m a video editor on FCP, and I can’t imagine doing it all in FCP after using FotoMagico. Check it, it’s without peer.

[…] Filed under: Apple, Media, Photography | Last May, I posted how I put together slideshows using Aperture and Final Cut. Since then, Apple’s updated iMovie significantly, and now many of the features which had […]


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