Review: USB FX Camera

(Images from the Gakken website used for review purposes only.)

USB Special Effects Camera, 3,6750 yen ($37 USD).
Ok, this is a standard webcam that connects to your computer through the USB port. The only two things that are different about it are the close-up lens, and a short hand-held stick. One end of the stick has a tiltable camera mount, and the handle is threaded to screw onto standard-size camera tripod bolts. So, if you want to, you can attach the stick to your existing tripod for stability. Otherwise, all the real work of recording video, editing and adding effects will be done by whatever computer software you have. If you’re running Windows on a PC, you can download Movie Maker from Microsoft as a service pack, if you don’t already have a copy.

The kit consists of the camera premounted to the circuit board and pre-wired to the USB cable, the case shell halves, the handle, a couple washers and the mounting hardware. Suggested assembly time is 15 minutes and it took me about that long. I spent 5 minutes trying to bend and route the wires within the shell around the circuit board, and then constantly picking up the lens cap from the floor. The cap falls off too easily. The only tricky parts are in figuring out which screws to use. There’s one black narrow-head screw that attaches the handle to the shell case back. There are 3 silver screws for mounting the circuit board within the case, and 4 more black screws for attaching the shell case front to the shell back. The narrow head screw is the same length and thread as the other 4 black screws, so it’s easy to mix them up and use them interchangeably, it’s just that when you look at the finished camera from the front, one screw will be a different shape from the others. All the black screws are cheap metal and the heads strip if you’re not careful.

(With the camera mounted on a tripod, aimed at a set made up of images cut from the covers of the kit box.)

When you have the camera built, you can either download the AR software from Gakken (in which case you’ll also need something like lhaplus to uncompress it), or use Movie Maker or something. The Mook gives instructions for selecting the camera under 8 different applications, including Movie Maker, Photobooth, Quicktime Player, FaceTime and iMovie. The computer will automatically detect the camera and download and install the proper drivers. After that, just be sure you select the correct camera (it may either be “PC camera” or “webcam”)  from your devices list within your application. I tried using the Gakken AR software, but it keeps auto-selecting my laptop’s built-in camera and I can’t find any way to override that. Gakken doesn’t provide documentation for this app.

(The set seen from roughly the correct angle.)

The camera over-responds to changes in lighting conditions, and indoor fluorescent lighting turns everything blue-green. So, you’ll either want to use lens filters, incandescent lighting, or software editing tools. The lens is threaded. Screwing it inward changes it to pan focus; screwing the lens outward sets it to macro mode. Focusing is left up to you, based on the video you see displayed on your computer. The only caveat is to not fully remove the lens, which will expose the CCD to dust that will show up very easily in your movie.

(The figures, buildings and vehicles are glued to a long sheet of matte board. The backdrop is just a sheet of yellow construction paper cut in half and taped together. I didn’t have time to print up anything more interesting.)

The Otona no Kagaku site seems incomplete at the moment. The mook mentions several downloads, including texture maps of the buildings in the Roppongi Hills district in Tokyo, and some short movies made by the guest artists, none of which are available online yet, except for the main youtube ad). For the texture maps, you print them out on regular paper, cut the maps out and then paste them to styrofoam blocks cut to the right sizes. If you don’t want to go through that much work to make up a movie set, the front and back sides of the kit box are printed with flat 2D people and building facades you can cut out and prop up on a table. It took me about 4 hours to cut out all the images (buses, trucks, people, buildings) using a cutter knife, and I ended up using maybe only half of them on one sheet of matte board.

(One of the toys I picked up a couple years ago is a steam train engine that snaps onto a can coffee can. I needed a spacer to get the camera to stand level on the side of the coffee can, so I just used several folds of the cardboard packing that came with the kit, held together with electrical tape.)

The mook this time is pretty much 100% special effects photography. The lead article is an interview with Shinji Higuchi, who has worked on Gamera, Lorelei and a number of other movies. This is followed by a brief overview of FX history, including looks at Georges Melies, King Kong and the works of Godzilla and Ultraman master Eiji Tsuburaya. Cameraman Keiichi Sakurai demonstrates a few effects tricks with the kit camera, and several pages are dedicated to explaining the tricks further. There’s 6 pages on the making of an amateur flying turtle movie, 2 pages on making sound and exploding dirt effects, 2 pages on storyboarding, and 2 pages on different kinds of lenses that can be strapped in front of the camera with a special holder attachment. The next 10 pages are on videos made by the guest artists, a trip to an immense miniature electric train exhibit, and a guy that mounted a webcam into a plastic eyeball at the top of a tall hat (kind of a walking google maps camera thing.) The rest of the mook has instructions for making the kit, setting it up for different software apps, and finally the 12-page Science Manga strip by Yoshitoo Asari. The manga describes the camera tricks used in the Godzilla and Ultraman movies.

(It’s not literally a camera “truck”, but the principal is the same.)

The pictures in this mook are great if you’re looking for suggestions on how to make your own rubber suit movie, but because just about everything depends on the computer and software you have, the camera and holder stick are kind of redundant. You can get the same effect by buying a cheap webcam with a 6′ cable, cracking the case and mounting the camera on a wooden dowel. (In fact, the Gakken editors suggest using the kit camera as a webcam.) I do like a couple suggestions in the mook – 1) Put the camera in a clear waterproof ball (or toy submarine) and submerge it in your aquarium; 2) tape the camera onto the back of a miniature train flatbed car and run it up and down the train tracks for the kinds of camera shots you get at the Olympics. If you’re in Japan, this kit is worth getting if you really plan on making your own movies. Outside Japan, I’d say the import markups would make it overpriced for what you get. I’m really hoping the Otona no Kagaku site gets updated soon with the other video and texture map downloads.

(I still have almost half of the smaller images left over that didn’t seem needed within the above set.)

Youtube video

(For some reason, Windows Movie Maker only recorded in 320×200 pixel resolution, while the camera claims to be 2 megapixel.)

Next up, an auto-writing doll mechanism. No suggested price. Expected out sometime in January, 2014

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