Making Memes in the Time of Coronavirus: A Note on Process

by Jacqueline Ristola

Introduction:

A week or so ago, an idea hit me: why not re-write the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have The Touch” to make them be about social distancing? Peter Gabriel’s early solo work is littered with songs of paranoia, isolation, panic, and fear. One could easily play with this material to reflect the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. So I set out to do so.

I turned a song about the desire for contact and repurposed it to reflect the lack of contact occurring during social distancing. This blog post charts all the work it took to make this happen, from the initial idea, to producing a fully realized piece of media. We’ll begin with a chronological look at my workflow, and finish with some reflections on what I learned throughout the process.

Timeline:

Friday, March 21st: The idea first springs to mind. Instead of “Shake those hands” in the chorus of “I Have The Touch,” I record a version saying “Wash those hands”? I came up with a few ideas for lyrics.

But where to find an instrumental track of the song? Thus begins a long rabbit hole regarding a piece of lost media –  an 80s direct to video VHS about the famous Japanese puppeteer Tsujimura Jusaburo that uses instrumental versions of Peter Gabriel songs. Titled Jusaburo, this strange piece of media will be the subject of a future blog post.

Regardless, I secure an instrumental version of the song thanks to the clever searching of my friends Evelyn and Zoë – follow them on Twitter! The track cuts off halfway through the song, but seeing as it’s the only instrumental track available, it will have to do.

Tuesday, March 24th: This is the first day I actually get serious about production. I finalize all the lyrics, and begin recording the vocal track in my recently cleaned and emptied living room. I use QuickTime Player to record the audio, trying the built-in microphones of both my 2011 MacBook Pro microphone and my Sony MDR-ZX310 headphones. My Mac’s recording was tinny and caught too much of the ambient room sounds, while my headphones produced a warmer sound, if a touch muffled. I consult with my friends, and they agree to go with the headphones. I record 8 versions of my newly re-written lyrics with my headphones, changing the lyrics part-way through to add a line about flattening the curve of coronavirus.

Once satisfied with the audio recording, it was time to start mixing and editing. I knew that this would have to take place in video form (video is key to virality), so I needed some sort of software to work with.

The first of many issues began here. Ideally, I should just use iMovie, the free Apple software that came bundled with my 2011 MacBook Pro, right? Well, I had removed that software years ago to make room on my hard drive. I try to download it again from the App Store, only to find my computer specs were too outdated to download the software.

Thus begins the search for editing software. I download Davinci Resolve, a free and respected software, only to find that the software could not find any opencl capable gpus. In other words, there was an issue I could not comprehend or fix, so I uninstall.

I then download Open Shot Video Editor, and I could actually get it to work. Better yet, I could actually open the software! But it is too simplistic and unable to edit in fine detail. Uninstall.

Finally, there is AVID Media Composer. I was actually trained on AVID in undergrad in my only media production class. I sign up for a 30 day free trial. It takes over an hour to download. I take a nap.

I also download GarageBand (another application I had discarded years ago to make space on my hard drive), thinking I could use it to mix the audio I recorded. Unfortunately, in order to use it, I would have to record the audio through the program, which would have meant more recording sessions I didn’t care to do again.

Wednesday, March 25th: Post production begins. I use the Photoshop-like application Pixelmator (something I’m actually decently proficient in) to edit the album art of Peter Gabriel’s Security to add my twitter handle. I then use QuickTime Player of the edited image to produce a screen capture as my “footage.” I want to jump into editing, but need to relearn everything I was taught in 2012. I watch a five-part series on how to “Get Started Fast with AVID Media Composer.” It takes up time and delays my progress, but it was necessary for using the software going forward.

Thursday, March 26th: I try to begin editing today, but AVID isn’t working. What could it be? I download Open Shot again in mild panic and frustration, hate it again, and uninstall it again. I then realize that I didn’t have my external hard drive plugged in (where a lot of the AVID files are being stored). I plug it it, and AVID opens without a hitch.

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 8.49.09 PMWell, that’s not entirely true. AVID always warns me that I don’t have the required 8GB of RAM to run, but I proceed anyway. This makes the entire editing process like pulling teeth: playback of my edits often halt after a few seconds, the software slows my computer, but I press on. I have a meme to make.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 9.28.31 PM

A screenshot of the editing process

Thus begins hours of editing. I slowly relearn the system as I edit the instrumental track, my vocals, and the edited album art footage, with the original song serving as a guide to synchronize everything together. Throughout the editing process, I finally figure out:

  • how to get waveforms to show on my audio tracks
  • how to split up tracks, and trim
  • how to fade in and out of the footage and audio
  • and more!

Once I finish the edit, I feel incredibly accomplished. Then I realize I still need to add the captions. What use is a lyrics-based joke video if there aren’t any captions? I get back to work. After figuring out how to add the text, I work to figure out how to export it. I began this project with a terribly low-quality image of the album art (which is low-res to begin with), so this constrains the video quality and final output.

I celebrate with my friends on a job almost done. Zoë reminds me that I need a clever title image if this is going to get any traction. I sigh, return to my room, and open up Pixelmator. I add a facemask to an iconic image of Peter Gabriel (from his So album era). It looks so good I regret not making this the main image for the entire video, but doing so will require more work, and it feels too late now.

I upload the final video YouTube and Twitter. I try to upload to Instagram, but the app does not take .MOV files. I download Wondershare UniConverter to convert .mov to mp4. But the software requires purchase if you want to convert your full video. I uninstall in frustration. I google search again for .mov to .mp4, find a simple website, and convert the footage. I still have trouble uploaded to instagram as a standalone post, but I am able to add it as a story. I go to bed.

Concluding remarks:

You may be wondering why I went through this production process with such meticulous detail. I wrote this because I wanted to illustrate that the actual production process (especially for someone half-trained in media production at best) is often full of dead-ends, frustrating break downs in production, and limitations in hardware and software that significantly shape the production process and final output. If only I could use the lab equipment at my university! Now that I’ve tried my hand at media production, I feel much less timid, and am much more eager to try producing more things.

A list of applications and other equipment used to produce a video

A list of everything used or tried in the process of making this video.

What did I learn from this? AVID is a bitch, for one, but works quite well once you know how to actually use it. I also learned its best to plan out everything you will need to use in advance. This sounds obvious, and anyone training in media production knows this, but this relates to people who want to make quality memes as well. Think about the space, equipment, software, hardware, and other things you will need (time, energy, etc.). Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. But that’s always going to be the case, so really the point is to constantly try new things. Every step is going to improve your quality of work if you take the time to reflect on the production process.

Looking at my video, I know I could go back and edit in my high-quality image of Peter Gabriel with the face mask to make the image a little more palatable. I could buy a decent microphone and record the audio in GarageBand, and add some much needed reverb to my vocals. I could do a lot of things to make the video even better. But this would take more time and possibly money, and if I’ve learned anything from this production process, it’s that I also need to know when to stop and say “good enough.”