Great Kids Afternoon Project: Claymation!

I had a great Sunday afternoon with my kids today. We combined three of my favorite activities together to do something unique, fun, and easy-to-do - we used digital cameras, some play-doh, and some pretty simple software to make claymation animations. Here's my daughter's first claymation:

The kids spent about two hours completely absorbed doing the project, and they absolutely loved the results when they were done. I was surprised at how easy it was to make something that looked reasonably competent, and how quickly the kids caught on to the technique, and started to master new ones, even while still making their first movie.

What You Need:

  1. A compact digital camera, capable of 640x480 (VGA) resolution ( I used a Canon SD850IS, which is overkill, almost any compact will do)
  2. Some play-doh, or other soft clay
  3. A tripod or mini-tripod (I used a Manfrotto 709)
  4. A mat of some kind (I used 4 sheets of white printer paper taped together, and taped to the table)
  5. Some software that does stop-motion animation (I used Quicktime Pro, $29.99 for the Mac or for the PC)

First the kids taped four pieces of paper together to make a mat so that the clay wouldn't stick to the dining room table. We taped those down at their workspaces, so that they could be comfortable, and set up the tripod and camera pointing at the mat.

Next, set up the workspace in a place that isn't directly lit by the sun - it should be evenly lit and relatively low contrast, I'll explain more later. I zoomed the camera a bit so that the mat filled the frame, but you can do whatever you like with focus and zoom, it makes for interesting effects - for example, we kept the camera zoomed out for my son's claymation, and that led to an interesting clay+reality mixture:

Make sure that the camera is locked securely to the tripod, and that the tripod will stay in place as well.

Next, you need to make some changes to the camera settings. First off, you don't need all those megapixels - in fact, you should set the resolution of your camera to its lowest or nearly lowest setting - 640x480 is usually more than enough. Using higher resolutions will actually be a hinderance to you, and won't give you much additional benefit. Of course, if you want to do claymation in HD, you can increase your resolution to something like 1920x1080 if your camera supports that. If you want to improve things a bit, turn the JPG compression to fine or super-fine, which will retain a bit more detail. This is one of those times when you definitely want your camera to be storing in JPGs, the smaller the better!

You'll also want to turn the automatic flash off, as it'll just ruin your exposure. If you can turn off autofocus, that's even better, but my experience is that it doesn't make much of a difference. You'll want to turn off the auto--shutdown feature of your camera as well, as you don't want the camera turning itself off and on between frames.

I put the camera into its manual mode, and also try to compensate the exposure for the whiteness of the mat - generally that means overexposing the built-in meter by about 1 f-stop. If your camera produces a histogram, you can watch the histogram to make sure that it is a smooth bell curve right in the middle of the histogram.

With your camera on the tripod, turned on and set, and your workspace set up, you're ready to do your animation! The trick is that you're going to take a photograph of your scene, then move the clay a small amount, and then take the next photo in sequence. When you stitch all of these photos together at 15 or 30 frames per second, it looks just like one of those flipbooks you probably had when you were a kid. It relies on the phenomenon of persistence of vision, which is how all movies work.

Now go have fun. I found that it took about 10 minutes for my 6 year-old to understand what he needed to do in his workflow, and my 9 year-old understood it immediately once I showed her. You might want to make yourself the cameraman, and let your child do the animation - it makes for great teamwork, and it's fun to do different things with the clay, like roll it into balls, make snakes and caterpillars, and do chase scenes. Moving the clay more means that it will appear faster in the movie. When you've told your story, or you've filled up your memory card, you're ready to do the software magic that brings everything together.

Moving to the computer

Once you've got your masterpiece filmed, it is time to dump the memory card of your camera onto your computer. I prefer to start with a completely empty memory card which means that there's nothing to mess up your movie, but you can usually tell which frame is your first by looking at the dates of the images.

I then fired up Quicktime Pro (unfortunately you can't use the unlicensed Quicktime player for this, you need to be able to create new movies, which means you need to shell out the $29 for Quicktime Pro) and went to File -> Open Image Sequence so that I could stitch all the frames into a single movie. You'll be then asked for the number of frames per second - generally, 15 frames per second works prety well, but if you're really getting expert, you can go for a video look (30 fps) or a cinematic look (24 fps). The higher the frame rate, the more quickly your movie will play.

There is other stop-action software out on the market, but I've found that Quicktime Pro is the easiest and fastest way to go from the camera into a viewable state. don't forget to save your completed movie when it comes up, and you can import the movie into other non-linear editing software, like iMovie, Adobe Premiere, or Final Cut if you want to do further edits, cuts, or ad audio, subtitles, or credits.

The best part is that if you're not a video or computer expert, you can still have a lot of fun with a very low-end camera and computer, and the quality of your end-product is entirely limited by your (or your kid's) imagination!

This moved me today

Maybe it is just thinking about the end of the year and the beginning of a new year, but this moved me:

Birth, sickness, death, falling in love, watching TV, raising families, mowing the lawn, going to the movies, taking your nephew to a ball game, drinking beer, hanging out with your buddies, playing frisbee, painting the house. No matter where your adventure takes you, most of what is truly meaningful is still to be found revolving around the mundane stuff you did before you embarked on your adventure. The stuff that'll be going long after you and I are both dead, long after our contribution to the world is forgotten. But often, one needs to have that big adventure before really understanding this. Going full circle. Exactly.

That's from How to be creative, From Hugh MacLeod's blog. Worth a read or a reread, especially at this time of year. Happy new year, everyone! I'm going to remember to be grateful today, and count my blessings.

Offbeat Guides Public Beta!

I'm proud to announce the launch of Offbeat Guides first product in public beta! What's Offbeat Guides? Offbeat Guides homepage. 5 simple steps to build your customized guidebook.Our first product is quite simple: On-demand, Personalized Travel Books. Travel books that are tuned just for you, only about the place that you're going, with local information like festivals, events, and concerts that are going on during the dates of your stay. We put in local maps that are tuned to where you'll be, and we even customize the guide based on what we learn about you, like the timezone differences from your hometown, electrical plug differences, embassies and consulates nearby, differences in tipping policies, exchange rates, local weather forecasts, and much more. We provide guides for over 30,000 city destinations around the world - of course we cover New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, but we also have guides to Newark, Paradise, Romeoville, and Tokorozawa, and many more places. We're trying to solve the problem that most of us have when we travel - you want to know where to go, what to do when you're there, and what's going on while you're there. We're a company run by obsessive technologists who happen to travel a LOT. We don't come out of the travel industry. We're travelers, just like you. We value your time, so we focused on simplicity. To get started, we only ask you 5 questions:

  • Where are you going: We currently cover over 30,000 city destinations
  • When will you be there: So we can include information about local festivals, events, club meetings, sports teams, concerts, and other timely information
  • Where are you coming from: With this information, we give you contextal information, like timezone differences, embassies and consulates for your home country, language guides, exchange rates, electrical adapters needed, and more.
  • Where are you staying: So we can localize the maps that go into your guide, and put your hotel right at the center of things.
  • The Traveler's Name: Well, we need to know who you are, so we can put your name right on the book cover! Makes for great gifts, too.

From that, we show you a live preview of your guide, with sights, attractions, restaurants, and hotels - but we also pull in all the local and contextual information we can find, tuning your guide just for you, your preferences, and your trip details. We also brought on a top-notch team of travel experts, who have gone through the top 1000 city destinations in the world, called the museums, checked on the hotel information, and chatted with the restaurateurs. We built an travel search engine to help us to locate the most interesting information about the other 29,000 destinations, using both freely available information as well as licensed information from partners like Wikitravel, Wikipedia, Flickr, Eventful, Upcoming, Meetup, the World Factbook, and many other local sources. As we continue to build out the site, we'll be adding in many more validated sources as well as incorporating feedback from travelers and locals into the future guides. Can I customize it? The Book Preview Screen, with Customization FeaturesOf course. You get full control over your guide - so if you already know where you're staying, you can click to deselect all of the information about hotels, for example. You can add customized chapters and fill them with information that you gather from your friends, or from around the internet. And when you're done, you can get your guide in multiple formats:

  • As a beautifully printed full-color book, shipped to your door (or your hotel!) right before you leave on your trip so it has the freshest information in it,
  • As a PDF suitable for printing on your home printer, or downloading onto your mobile phone or reading device, or
  • On the web so you can read through the book on-line, and update information before and during your trip.

Why only City Guides? Well, we had to start somewhere. One of the most-requested features from our private beta testers has been to create regional or area guides, for example, for Maui, or for The Napa Valley. We're working on this, it's in the pipeline, but we wanted to open the doors to all of you, even if those country or regional guides aren't ready yet. Another frequently requested feature is for multi-segment trips - where you are visiting multiple places on a single trip. Right now, you'll have to get a guide for each place, but this is something that we're definitely keeping an eye on as we continue to build out the product. How much does it cost? It's USD $9.95 to buy the PDF version, so you can print it yourself and save money. It's USD $24.95 + shipping to buy the book, and the PDF comes included - you can download updated PDFs as many times as you want before your trip ends, as well! That's about the same or less than you'd pay to buy a guide in a bookstore, and you'd end up with information that's 12-24 months old, that's not customized to you. Is there a Money-back Guarantee? Yes! If you're unhappy with your guide for any reason whatsoever, simply let us know, and we'll refund your money. No questions asked. Even if it is after your trip, and you've used the book. We're committed to making a really great experience for you, so if you're unhappy with the guide at all, we will refund your money. Where's the catch? Why is it Beta? This is a pretty ambitious product, and we're really happy with what we've built so far - but there's still so much more to do. We've been testing for 5 months in private beta with over 6,000 people helping us to get things right, but things still crop up, and we want to learn more from you. We're opening up the doors to let anyone come and kick the tires and buy some guides, and we really want to get your thoughts and feedback so we can make the experience and the guide information as good as possible. There will be bugs. We promise to stay in touch both on our blog and on Get Satisfaction and keep you in the loop as we find and fix bugs and issues. We appreciate your willingness to work with us on this and to help us create a great product together. For our Private Beta Testers We love you. We really really do! Thanks so much for all the help and feedback, you are the best group of testers I've ever had the opportunity to work with. The free book coupons that you got as a private beta tester are still valid until November 30th; after that they won't work anymore, so don't procrastinate! We'll also be sending you a survey as we close up the private beta - please check for it in your mailbox soon. It should take 10-15 minutes to fill out, but it will really help us to get your thoughts and feedback and to continue to improve the product. Thanks!!! How to get involved Well, first off, come and kick the tires! Check out the guide preview for your hometown, or for a place you're visiting soon. Drop us a line and let us know how things look. Are there errors? Problems with the information? Are we missing a great feature? Let us know! Also, follow us on Twitter! We're @offbeatguides. We love hearing from you. And Thanks! Thanks for all of your support. On a personal note, I want to thank the Offbeat Guides Team who have weorked their butts off getting this built. I'm really excited to be taking this next adventure with you!

I'll be on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny at 9am on 10/9

It's a bit late notice, but I just found out myself - I'll be on Forum with Michael Krasny this morning at 9am PT. I'll be on with Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and my old friend Sarah Lacy, columnist for Business Week, co-host of Yahoo! Finance's "TechTicker" and author of "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0". We're going to be discussing the effects of the Financial Crisis on Silicon Valley.I'm a fan of Michael Krasny - I often listen to the 2-hour long "Forum" show, and I've always found him to be articulate, intelligent, and very well educated on the subjects he covers, making great conversation with his guests - so I'm really looking forward to meeting him in person down at the KQED studios. I'll try to get some photos. It should be an interesting discussion - especially with the market gyrations in the last 2 weeks, the all-but-closure of the IPO market, and now the tech M&A market, it sure looks like we're in for a cold winter. But I think there's still room for optimism - busts are the perfect time for large companies with cash on their balance sheets to ride things out and gain market share, and also for small agile companies to develop and disrupt industries. I call this the "barbell theory" - where companies at the large and very small end of the scale will do quite well - but the ones in the middle get slaughtered. It's a time when great talent gets easier to find, rents drop, and it's easier to be heard above the din. But I've got a lot of concern for speculative businesses out there that haven't found a way to get big and build brand and revenue yet (or even a business model!) and are large enough that they're burning through cash. I fear that many Valley and "Web 2.0" businesses in the middle of the barbell are going to have a very difficult time in the coming downturn, especially those that are solely advertising based. There's still an enormous opportunity to create value and build very successful businesses, even in a crisis and downturn like the one we're going through - I think it is incumbent on forward-thinking entrepreneurs and investors to think creatively about how they: a) Help businesses save money, b) Increase efficiency or disintermediation reducing friction, c) Reduce their own costs, and d) Diversify their revenue streams I plan on talking more about that during the show - and I'll blog about it afterwards. I'm looking forward to the discussion! I sure hope I'm wrong - Here's hoping for a market upswing!

Offbeat Guides Sneak Peek and Beta Update

We've been hard at work on the private beta of Offbeat Guides, and I thought it would be a good time to give y'all an update on our progress!We've been making huge strides both in making the site simpler and easier to use, as well as cranking away on the hard tasks of building out a deep semantic search service that dynamically builds guides for over 30,000 different city destinations around the world. We've taken a lot of what I've learned building comprehensive real-time search engines at Technorati, and also what Marina and her team have learned in building and curating a narrative experience when she was with Lonely Planet. We want to give you more than just the facts - to also get you a flavor and some the romance of the place and of your trip. We've expanded the partners we're working with to include even more local photographs, festivals, tickets, and events, and we've put in a lot of heuristic technology to help to make sure we weed out as much irrelevant information as possible. If you want to work with us, drop us a line. Algorithms can't provide everything though, especially for the top travel destinations of the world - humans mean a lot too. We've got a team of people who have been digging deep into the top 1000 city destinations of the world - calling the shops, restaurants, hotels, fact-checking, and pulling out the cruft, while focusing on bringing you the most interesting offbeat local perspectives, and we also take advantage of all of the great Creative Commons-licensed and Public Domain information thats out there on the internet to help to create a satisfying experience for anyone who is traveling. We're also looking to get feedback from locals and travelers so the guides stay current and completely up-to-date, too! There's still a lot to do, but I thought I'd put up a screencast (it runs a total of about 13 minutes) that takes you through the main features of the site - a sneak peek of what our private beta testers have been playing with.

We're actively adding more people to the beta, on a first-come, first served basis - so if you want to get involved in testing out our beta, helping us to identify and fix bugs, and get two printed guides shipped free-of-charge to you as part of the private beta, make sure to sign up at the site. This offer won't last forever! :-)

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State of the Blogosphere 2008 Wrap-up: Brands and the Blogosphere

To wrap up a long data-filled week, we've rolled out part 5 of the State of the Blogosphere report, which is all about how traditional brands are perceived and how bloggers interact with brands in the blogopshere. This data is taken from the large survey done on Technorati bloggers earlier this year, as described in our methodology. Here's a few of the interesting things we learned:

  • More than four in five bloggers post product or brand reviews, and blog about brands they love or hate.
  • One-third of bloggers surveyed have been approached to be brand advocates.
  • Of those, more than six in ten were offered payments of some kind.
  • One in five bloggers don't think that newspapers will survive the next ten years.
  • Half of bloggers surveyed believe that blogs will be a primary source for news and entertainment in the next five years.
  • 37% of bloggers surveyed have been quoted in traditional media based on a blog post.
  • Bloggers are most open to receiving marketing messages from other blogs. Even non-blog web content is more influential among this group than traditional media sources for brand information.
  • Bloggers spend twice as much time online as U.S. adults 18-49, and spend only one-third as much time watching television.

Read the whole section, including charts and graphs. Read the entire 5-part report.

Technorati State of the Blogosphere Parts 3 and 4: How, and How Much?

Technorati continues to release our 2008 State of the Blogosphere report. Here's some highlights from the last two days of posts, on how most bloggers blog, and on blogging for profit (an eye-opening read).

  • One in four bloggers spends ten hours or more blogging each week.
  • Over half of the Technorati top authority bloggers post five or more times per day, and they are twice as likely to tag their blog posts compared to other bloggers.
  • From their use of RSS feeds, video, photos, and mobile updates, top bloggers are also tremendously sophisticated in leveraging the available tools to make their blogs more robust.
  • The Technorati Top 100 blogs had more than twice as many postings in June 2008 as the next 500, and more than 12 times as many postings as the next 5000.
  • The Technorati Top 100 are prolific, with 43% posting ten times per day or more often. Only 8% post once a day or less frequently, compared to 13% of the next 500 bloggers, and 22% of the next 5000 bloggers.
  • Among bloggers who have advertising on their blogs, two in three have contextual ads (such as Google AdSense). One-third of bloggers have affiliate advertising on their blog. One in five negotiate directly with advertisers and one in ten sell advertising through a blog ad network.
  • The average annual blogger revenue is more than $6,000. However, this is skewed by the top 1% of bloggers who earn $200k+.
  • Among active bloggers that we surveyed, the average income was $75,000 for those who had 100,000 or more unique visitors per month (some of whom had more than one million visitors each month). The median annual income for this group is significantly lower β€” $22,000.
  • Bloggers with advertising invest an average of $1,800 annually in their blogs. U.S. bloggers earn an average of $5,000, though bloggers in Asia earn 50% more on average and European bloggers earn an average of 75% more than U.S. bloggers.
  • High revenue bloggers skew the mean revenue. The median revenue for U.S. bloggers is $200 annually (and the median annual investment is only $50).
  • The top 10 percent of blogger respondents earned an average of $19,000 annually.
  • Three-quarters of these successful bloggers are male, and four in ten are self employed (twice as high as the average blogger).

Get all the details, including graphs and charts.

State of the Blogosphere 2008 Part 2: The What and Why of Blogging

Today Technorati released the second part of our State of the Blogosphere report, and today's topics focus on what bloggers blog about, and why they blog. Technorati surveyed over 1000 bloggers who use the service, and came away with some very interesting statistically significant information:Some highlights:

  • Both personal and professional topics are equally popular, with most bloggers covering multiple topics
  • Half of bloggers consider their style to be sincere, conversational, humorous, and expert in nature.
  • Although there is a perception of blogging as a means for writing a tell-all or gossiping, those blogging styles fell to the bottom of the list among the bloggers surveyed
  • Music is more popular and politics is less popular in Asia, while personal, lifestyle, and religious topics are less popular in Europe.
  • International bloggers tend to be less conversational and snarky.
  • Asian bloggers tend to be more motivational and confessional, while European bloggers are more confrontational.
  • Women tend to be more conversational in their blogging style, while men tend to be expert.
  • Those under 34 are more confessional in their blogging style, while those over 35 are more expert in their style.
  • When asked why they blog, the majority of personal bloggers do it for fun.
  • Twenty percent are currently making some money blogging, and another 42% hope to make money on their blog in the future.

There's lots more in the report, along with some very interesting charts and graphs showing more detailed analysis of what bloggers feel, and how they are motivated. If you missed it, you can check out the first part of the report, which gives more of an overview.

Technorati's State of the Blogosphere, September 2008

I'm very pleased to announce that the next installment of the State of the Blogosphere is out! It has been about a year since the last report, and the Technorati team has really worked hard to make this report something comprehensive, interesting, and informative.One of the big changes this year is that along with a comprehensive scan of Technorati's complete database, we also did a massive survey of bloggers who have registered with Technorati - a detailed survey with dozens of detailed questions about themselves, how they blog, and more. Altogether over 1,290 completed surveys came in from over 60 countries, with over 1,000 respondents (83%) providing their URLs and email addresses for follow-up. More information about the survey methodology is here. The report is so big, in fact, that we're releasing it in 5 parts: Day 1: Who Are the Bloggers? Day 2: The What And Why of Blogging Day 3: The How of Blogging Day 4: Blogging For Profit Day 5: Brands Enter The Blogosphere Enough of the preamble! Here's some juicy nuggets:

  • Technorati is currently tracking 133 million blogs (we've done a LOT of culling spam blogs, and the number of bloggers keeps growing!)
  • 7.4 Million blogs have posted in the last 120 days - that's 5.5% of all blogs we track.
  • 1.5 Million blogs have posted at least once in the last 7 days.
  • There are now, on average, 900,000 blog posts tracked every 24 hours. That means that Technorati's tracking 37,500 new blog posts per hour, or 10.4 new blog posts per second!

Here's some more highlights from the survey of Technorati bloggers:

  • The majority of bloggers we surveyed currently have advertising on their blogs. Among those with advertising, the mean annual investment in their blog is $1,800, but it’s paying off.
  • The mean annual revenue is $6,000 with $75K+ in revenue for those with 100,000 or more unique visitors per month.
  • Median investment and revenue (which is listed in the full report) is significantly lower, around $100-$200 per year.

There's so much rich data in there, lots offered for study. I don't think anyone has ever done as detailed a study of bloggers with as many participants, which means that you can slice and dice the data in a number of ways and still have enough respondents to have statistical significance. For example, blog networks serve nearly women bloggers at more than double the rate they serve male bloggers (16% of women who have advertising use a network, while only 7% of men who have advertising use a network). There's more to come, but go have a look at the initial report, hot and fresh at the Technorati site. If you want to see the older reports to compare, I've got them archived as well. Kudos to the Technorati team for working so hard and getting this out. I'm really looking forward to the conversations it generates.

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