Imagine this scenario: You’ve written a time-sensitive script for a video that you want to post on YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Instead of narrating the script yourself, you are looking to hire talented actors who have distinctive speaking voices. More importantly, you prefer not to use a camcorder (or don’t own one) and don’t have extra funds to pay for talent or set design. All you have is a bit of free time to work on the project on a single weekend. Is it even possible to conceive that this can be done?
Using a browser-based software program called Xtranormal, I recently produced a 3-minute video with the above parameters that describes the GMO Labeling Initiative that will appear as a ballot measure in California during the upcoming November election.
Once registered on the Xtranormal site, I was provided access to movie assets (digital voices, background sets, and cartoon “actors” who speak) that are integrated with text-to-speech technology that enabled me to take my script and turn it into a finished product without incurring a great deal of expense. During registration, I was given the option to sign up for a Basic (free), Educator ($10/month), or Professional ($50/month) account. To test out the Xtranormal system, I signed up for the Basic account. By doing so, my account was credited with 300 free points which I could use to select and purchase the assets I wanted to use in my movie.
Before embarking on my project, I spent several hours watching the sample movies and tutorials on Xtranormal. Like auditioning actors and actresses for a movie or stage play, I played samples of the digital voices that were available and searched through the character database until I found two that I felt were appropriate. I then selected a background after browsing through the templates.
Having tested other text-to-speech engines in the past (e.g., TextAloud for Windows and the built-in speech technology included with Mac OS X 10.7), I expected that a few of the words that I chose my characters to speak may be mistranslated during the digitization process. Sure enough, a few words didn’t quite sound right, so I adjusted my script to fix the problem.
Being a community theater actor as well as an experienced Final Cut Pro editor, I was impressed by the realistic effects that could be created using the Xtranormal interface, such as the ability to include hand gestures and facial expressions and portray scenes from different angles (e.g., two-shot, close-up, medium shot, low angle, aerial). As a newbie to the Xtranormal system, I didn’t fully grasp and take advantage of all these features in every scene of my first video.
In Final Cut Pro and other nonlinear editing systems, a completed movie sequence often needs to be rendered first before you can play it back on your computer. The same principle applies to movies created in Xtranormal where you must click the Preview button and wait for the rendering to complete before you can see the results.
Once you’re satisfied with the video, click the Publish button to complete the project. At publication, Xtranormal posts the completed video on its website and provides access to the URL address and embed code. Xtranormal also deducts the amount of points used by your project from your account. In my case, I used 149 points of my original allotment of 300. The two characters I selected as well as the background set were mine to use in any future Xtranormal videos at no extra charge. Once I exhaust my available points, I can purchase additional points or choose to subscribe as a Professional user (since I’m not an Educator, I’m not eligible to select this option).
Xtranormal offers a feature-rich, Windows-only tool called Xtranormal Desktop that provides additional features not found in the web version, such as support for up to 12 actors in a scene and the ability to program characters to sit or walk. Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and 2GB of RAM is the minimum configuration required to run Xtranormal Desktop, while Windows 7 is recommended.
To view my first Xtranormal movie called the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” click the embedded movie player below (YouTube version).