Recording a commentary
The first thing you’ll need is a movie or TV show that you want to comment on. That’s no surprise. If you’re doing the recording on your computer, play the movie on a different player, so that any processing doesn’t create a stutter that will screw up the sync. I like to watch them in my awesome home theater with the 119″ screen and 5.1 surround sound, but you could be a Brazilian street urchin watching it on a black-and-white TV or something. That part doesn’t matter.
Next, you’ll need a microphone and something to record on. I use a device called a “laptop computer” attached to a USB microphone. This is nice because the Samson CO3U I have plugs right into a USB port, so I don’t need a fancy sound board or whatever like in the horse-and-buggy days of podcasting. Plus there’s the undeniable coolness factor. It has a cold, metallic feel and impressive heft—like a gun. The Blue Snowball USB mike also has a reputation for great sound, altho it looks kind of funny.
If you prefer, you can record directly into an Roland R-05
digital recorder or Zoom H2
digital recorder. These are easy to use and have great built in stereo mikes, so you and a friend can record together in true stereo. It also eliminates the fan noise you can get from recording to a computer.
If you need to be able to record more than one or two commentators, you can go full on into podcasting equipment, with a mixer and some XLR mikes. These are still reasonably cheap, and they give you great flexibility. I can’t say enough about Cliff Ravenscraft, the Podcast Answer Man, and his kit sales; you may not want to pay for his consulting time, but the free advice on his podcast is well worth your time to check out. Check out his video on how a mixer board works.
If you want to record with friend who is not in the same room, I highly recommend both of you getting Skype (software is free; Skype-to-Skype calls are free) and using Call Graph (or similar software for Macs) to record the calls. You can even record each side separately, then combine them as a true stereo file in Audacity.
Introduction and keeping sync
Make sure you have the movie cued up at the beginning of the movie itself. Don’t assume that your audience is watching the same DVD version you are and press Play from the menu. DVDs and Blu-Rays often have little animations and different credits at the start that make that sync point useless if your audience is watching in a different format. Pick a start point where the studio or distributor logos have faded or when the music first starts or whatever—something that every version of the movie is sure to include and that is easy for your audience to find.
It may help to follow this checklist:
- Set the movie up to play
- Turn the sound down
- Turn the subtitles on
- Start recording
- Announce yourself and the title of the thing you’re watching and the version (region, release, cut—whatever)
- Instruct the listener on when to press Play (after the studio logo fades or whatever)
- Give a countdown and press Play yourself
- Describe what you’re seeing (“You should be seeing a car approaching…” or read a couple of the on-screen credits)
Having the sound entirely off makes editing easier later (you don’t have to worry about messing up the sync as much). Or you may want to have the sound on low, so that listeners can keep in sync more easily without your help. I used to recommend calling out the time code now and then during recording, but people watch on Blu-Ray, DVR, Hulu, different regions of DVD, and computer formats, so the time code pretty meaningless.
One good way is to quote a line of dialog at the same time as a character (you might want to do this later on a second audio track); that’s the method Rifftrax uses, and it works consistently, regardless of the video format you’re watching.
Then try to say something for the next couple of hours. You don’t have to be all jokey or an expert on the film, but you had better be moderately entertaining and you had better have looked up the movie on IMDb and Wikipedia. You don’t really want to record yourself for the entire world saying, “Man, what movie was that guy in? I know I’ve seen him before” while your listeners are screaming “That’s Tim Curry, you stupid bastard!” If there is more than one of you, one can look something up while the other continues to talk.
And do try to stay on topic. Chat about current events beforehand or later, when you aren’t in the middle of your listener’s favorite movie. And, if you do get off-topic, at least stay in the realm of movies and the genre you’re watching. The weather, politics, what happened last night on that one TV show, what might happen two weeks from now on that other TV show, and what the deal is with your brother are all boring for everyone, especially weeks or months later, when your audience is actually listening.
- Don’t belch on mike. Dumbass.
- Don’t announce when you’re going to take a leak.
- Do talk about what specifically is happening on-screen. This is generally bad form on a real director’s commentary (“Now he’s going to the desk, and he’s going to get the gun, and he’s going to go find her and try to shoot her…”) but fan commentaries need help syncing, and a lot of people listen to fan commentaries without watching the movie at the same time, so it actually helps to describe a bit of the action. Just don’t over-do it.
- Do talk about the actors and their characters by name. Have IMDb open or make a few notes beforehand.
If you’re doing a commentary as part of a podcast where you talk about other things, it’s really best to keep them separate. Do your regular podcast separate from the commentary (maybe it’s really brief that week) and urge people to go download the commentary or else put it in the feed as a bonus.
You may need to edit your commentary for various reasons. You may want to cut off the beginning and end. You may decide to fix something you said that was wrong or maybe even bleep yourself if you want to keep it clean. (Generally speaking, your language on the commentary should reflect the rating of the movie or else you should put a warning on the download page.)
If it’s a group commentary, I heartily recommend that you use Levelator to balance the levels of the different voices. This is a free utility from the Conversations Network that ingeniously brings quieter voices up and louder voices down to the same level.
Saving and Naming
Next, you’ll need to export you’re commentary to MP3 format. Come up with a clear and consistent file naming convention (I download a ton of these, and JLK12.mp3 is not helpful). A good form is something like:
Putting the movie title first allows people to find it alphabetically in a folder full of other commentaries. And remember that iTunes cuts off long file names, so I often end up with a folder full of files named “Your-Rather-Long-Podcast-Name–Doctor-Who-The-01.mp3″
Be sure to fill out the MP3 property tags so that players can display them properly. Using AAC or MP4 or OGG formats will just reduce your potential audience, since those formats won’t play in many audio players.
Then you’re ready to upload your commentary to your website. Maybe you have a real website or just a free WordPress blog or something. Or maybe you register at Archive.org or a free podcast distributor. It’s up to you.
Once you’ve found a place for it, you’re ready to submit your commentary track to the House of Commentaries. Once I learn about you, I’ll subscribe to your site feed (hint: have one) and get all your commentaries automatically.