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DIGITAL VIDEO - TIME TO MAKE THE MOVE
By Hugh Wyatt
When I was in college, I'd occasionally hang around the football office and watch in wonderment as the coaches cut up reels of 16mm film and spliced together new ones. It looked so cool!
Years later, I bought my own splicer and did my own cut-ups. It was cool! I became pretty good at it. But along came videotape, and that skill became obsolete.
In time, I became rather proficient at video production, teaching classes in the subject, and eventually acquiring enough equipment and editing know-how to go into business producing videos.
About a year ago, I started sharing some of my video production knowledge on this site. I got into a discussion of cameras ("camcorders") and tape formats, but never got onto the subject of tape decks or how to edit on them. A good thing, as it turns out. Because if I had, I'd have wasted your time and mine trying to explain one more skill that is fast becoming obsolete!
I ended my review of the various tape formats by mentioning the merits of the relatively new DV (digital video) format, which makes incredibly sharp, near-broadcast-quality originals, and very good "dubs" (copies) from them. Think of tape formats like baseball: if broadcast quality is major league, then DV is AAA, with the so-called "high resolution" formats Hi8 and SVHS at AA, and VHS at Class A.
I also mentioned the higher cost of DV equipment, with cameras ranging upward from $1000, but I predicted that, just like every other trend I'd seen in electronics, prices would come down. Sure enough, here we are a year later, and decent DV cameras are available in the $800 range.
Now, after working with digital equipment myself for nearly two years, I can say without any reservation - don't spend a nickel on any other format. A DV camera - along with a computer - is going to allow you to develop, in a relatively short time, video editing skills that took me a long time to acquire - on equipment that is now rapidly becoming outdated. So without any further screwing around - make your next camera a DV camera.
In addition to the far superior picture and copies it provides, Digital Video scores very high in the area of replay. Go ahead if you want and make conventional, full-size VHS copies to play in your VCR, but don't overlook playing the DV tape straight out of your camera. The DV camera, combined with a remote (make sure your camera comes with one) does at least as well as the most expensive VCR in any other format. Not only is its pause - and therefore its single-frame advance - crystal-clear, but its slow motion is smooth and clear without any streaks or jerkiness. (As a coach, unless you have a top-of-the-line VCR now, you are sure to appreciate that sort of playback when you are analyzing tapes.)
True, digital video tapes are expensive - about $15 apiece. The "Mini-DV" tape cassettes, about half the size of an audio cassette or 8-mm cassette, have a capacity of 60 minutes in standard play, but you can set your camera to record on them in extended play (EP) and get 90 minutes' play out of them. You can buy them at any large electronics store such as Circuit City, but at this point, it can be a bit of a nuisance trying to buy them in a pinch, because the local pharmacy isn't likely to have them just yet.
But don't let that deter you. If you are serious about video production, DV is the only way to go. That's because of something called Non-Linear Editing. (If you just memorize that phrase and use it in the right spots, people will think you know what you're talking about.) Essentially, it means not having to do things the old, time-honored way - in "linear" fashion - using a couple of VCR's and waiting for tape to roll back and forth in one of them while you look for the scenes you want to copy, then, one by one, copying them onto another tape, in the other VCR.
I'm not going to get into the technicalities of assembling, insert-editing, audio-dubbing, and creating titles, transitions (going from scene-to-scene) and special effects. That's where a lot of the specialized know-how and equipment come in. Let's just say that this traditional editing - called "analog editing" - can be tedious and time-consuming. And aggravating - especially when you look at a finished production and discover that you left something out - back near the beginning. Let's say you're looking at your season highlights tape and discover that somehow you left out the first game of the season! Don't laugh - it happens. And when it does, you have to tear the whole job apart - throw away everything you've done, all the way back to the point where the first game was supposed to go, and then start all over again from there. You can't "save your work" because when you do, you'll lose a generation. (Remember generation loss? When you make a copy of a tape - make a new generation - the copy is less sharp than the original; and a copy of that copy - another generation - will be even less sharp, and so on.)
The only way to avoid that possibility is to do it the way the pros do - non-linear editing. There is "toy" software that lets you do it right now on your PC, and produce a tape of VCR quality. But to produce a finished tape anywhere close to broadcast quality has always meant tremendously expensive software, priced as it was for a small market consisting exclusively of video-editing pros. And expensive, fast-fast-fast computers with incredible hard-drive storage capacity (video takes up a lot of room on your computer).
Now, though, after several years of watching the price of non-linear editing systems come down, from well over $20,000, to around $10,000, to somewhere around $5,000, I believe that it is finally feasible for the average, halfway-serious video person - or coach - to make the big jump. That's what I've gone and done. The reason is Apple. I'm a longtime Macintosh fan, and now Apple, long the favorite format of professional graphics designers, is evidently convinced that there is a large enough market for computerized video editing, and has made it possible. Too late for Christmas, maybe, but just in time for next football season.
Apple's answer is the hot new iMac DV SE (DV for Digital Video, SE for Special Edition). Unlike the first generation of egg-shaped iMacs, which were hugely successful for Apple but might be looked on by macho coaches as somewhat sissified - coming, as it did, in six different colors such as Tangerine and Grape - this latest model comes in only one color - graphite. It's a serious computer. Priced at $1499, it is fast (400 megaherz), with all the capacity (128 megabytes of RAM, and a 13 gigabyte hard drive) you're likely to need for a while. (There is a lesser version of the iMac DV that sells for $1299, but for the extra $200, you get a lot more bang for the buck with the SE.)
By itself, it is a great home computer. It comes loaded with a lot of useful software including Appleworks - a very good integrated program, meaning that you open one program and it contains a word processing, a spread sheet, a data base, a drawing and a paint program, all in one.
But for what we bought it for, the big star is a program called iMovie. It is Apple's own software, and for the moment it can't be purchased separately; it's only available on these new iMacs. It allows you to do Non-Linear Editing in your iMac, and thanks to a digital video camera and something called FireWire, it allows you to do it all digitally.
The iMac DV SE comes with two FireWire connectors. You may remember my writing about FireWire last spring: originally invented by Apple, it's an ultra-high-speed connecting cord that lets you send video images back and forth between your camera (all DV cameras have a FireWire connector) and your computer (provided it's got a FireWire connector). But FireWire isn't like ordinary video connector cables; it carries the video images as digital data - x's and o's -from your camera to your computer and back, so there's no need for video capture cards and all that other stuff you have to add to your present computer (good luck!) to try to upgrade it to do all the things that the iMac DV SE comes ready to do.
I respect the knowledge of Walter Mossberg, Technology Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and he is a huge fan of the iMac DV SE and iMovie combination - "the best system I've tried for video work," he calls it. If you're interested in producing good video, there are two factors that make it so.
The first is the FireWire connection. Since with it, you're merely exchanging data, and not having to convert a normal video signal into data and then back to video again, there is no "degradation" of the picture - no generation loss. When you send something over FireWire from your camera to your computer, and then copy it back from the computer to the camera - there is no loss of resolution. You're merely moving data back and forth, in effect still working with the same generation. (Only when you've done any editing from tape-to-tape can you fully appreciate this.)
Here's the second: the iMovie program is unbelievably easy to learn and use. If you already know something about non-linear editing, you're basically ready to go as soon as you connect your camera and your iMac with the FireWire, bring up the iMovie program on your computer and turn on your camera. That's about it. You'll pick up the rest of it on the run. On the other hand, even if you don't know squat, not to worry - iMovie comes with a really good tutorial (training program) that walks you through the production of a movie, letting you use video clips that Apple has pre-installed on your hard drive, to "create a movie." Don't worry. You can do it over and over and you can't hurt anything. As a result, starting from near-helpless, you could be making movies of your own in, oh, an hour or so.
Without elaborating on the process, you make your own video production by "importing" video into your computer from your camera, by way of FireWire; once it is in the computer, you can trim away unwanted footage, eliminate scenes or perhaps rearrange them so that, as an example, the locker-room scene following yesterday's big win is moved to the front of your video, ahead of the shot of the opening kickoff. (Doing this is a simple drag-and-click operation.) Maybe you'll want to add titles and transitions between scenes. Use the original sound if you like, or dub in your own sound track, with music or even commentary. When you're finished, you take a look at your production, while it's still in the computer. If you want to do any further tweaking, it's still easy to do. Otherwise, though, if you like the looks of your production as it is, it's ready to "print." You "export" your handiwork back into your camera over the same FireWire connection. And thanks to that connection, your iMovie program has allowed your computer to take control of your camera so that it records your production onto tape (make sure you've put a blank tape in your camera first).
The iMovie program is enough for any coach - or booster club - to produce a decent highlights video. I can also see using it to isolate and make a tape of all plays of a particular type, or certain plays highlighting a particular player, or all defensive or offensive plays, and so forth. It certainly would have uses in the classroom as well, and no one says you can't make home movies, too. (Although I'm not sure where you're going to find time to do all this.)
iMovie is also capable of making "stills"- "frozen frames" - from your digital video, capturing individual frames and saving them for use on web sites, for example. You might want to check my "SYSTEM" page or "WILDCAT" page to see what such "frozen frames" look like - the "photos" on those page were taken from actual game footage.
I can foresee eventually moving up to something more powerful, but for the moment, the iMac is going to meet most of my requirements, and when I do have an occasional need for something more sophisticated, I'll do as I've done in the past, and rent the equipment.
These iMac DV SE's are slick, and so is the Mac OS 9 Operating System that it comes with. If you've been working with Windows, you won't have much trouble finding your way around a Mac, because Windows is basically a very clever copy of the original Mac operating system, anyhow.
And if you're worried about the compatibility of all those Windows files on your present PC, there is Mac software that will read Windows files. (If you really miss Windows, there is even Virtual PC, a program which makes your Mac think it is a PC and act like one.)
There are a few things about the iMac that you do need to be aware of: although it has a great slot-fed CD-ROM drive that will also play DVD movies, it does NOT have a floppy-disk drive - indispensable if you want to transfer files from your other computer. So it is wise to buy an external floppy drive for another $100. And since the iMac connects with other equipment by means of either FireWire or the new-fangled USB connector, you may find that your present printer and scanner are not USB-compatible. Of course, the adaptability and connectibility of your present "peripherals" are considerations any time you're planning to buy a newer computer.
About a year ago, SONY introduced a new format called "Digital-8", so-named because it can record digitally on less expensive Hi8 tape, while at the same time being able to play back old 8mm and Hi8 tapes. Now, it does seem to me that people with a lot of 8mm or Hi8 tapes lying around won't have any trouble playing them if they just hang onto the camera they shot those tapes with, but...
I'm not qualified to comment on the virtues or failings of "Digital-8." At least for consumers, it seems to be a success. I am a SONY fan and have had good success using SONY equipment. But it is worth noting that the Engineering and Post-Production Manager at the firm which copies my videos is not impressed with Digital-8. He thinks it's a marketing gimmick designed to upgrade the people who already have Hi-8, or to catch the people who don't understand the value of the pure DV format. He has a low opinion of the actual inner workings of most Hi8 cameras, and says that the Digital-8 cameras are still using the same mechanism. Further, since the Digital-8 records its digital signal on Hi8 tape, the same "drop-out" problems that sometimes plague users of Hi8 tapes will continue to occur. He said that it was unlikely that his firm will "support" the Digital-8 format, because his company already has enough equipment on hand to "dub" a huge variety of formats onto VHS tapes - the ones people buy - and the last thing it needs is one more format to have to deal with. And since Digital-8 doesn't seem to have much of a potential among professionals, he doesn't foresee spending money on more machines just to dub Digital-8 tapes. Which means if you'll ever have any need to have large numbers of tapes commercially reproduced, an investment in Digital-8 could leave you stranded.
All, told, I figure that my ground-floor entry into non-linear editing has cost me, in addition to the digital camera I already owned, about $1600 (counting the external floppy drive). Now, with a DV camera, I have everything that I need - that you would need - to do a decent basic job of non-linear editing. I am not a technical wizard - I don't want to be screwing around under the hood of my computer, or installing software that causes my computer to freeze because of some incompatibility that I'll never locate. (Maybe you know what I'm talking about.) I just want to be able to use my computer to do the things I bought it for, and that's why I like the fact that I'm using Apple's own software, written for the computer I'm using it on.
Bottom line: if you're considering editing video, don't waste another minute even thinking about buying any camera other than a digital (DV) camera; don't spend any money on an "editing VCR." And don't even think about trying to retrofit your present computer to edit video with various devices and software that won't come close to living up to their advertising claims. At the very least, you will be disappointed. At the worst, you could wind up tossing your computer through the window. Yes I could have gotten something more advanced. There are some killer systems out there. But I would have had to spend quite a bit more, so I think that at this time and for some time to come, this combination of an iMac DV, iMovie and a Digital Camera is going to help me get a lot of jobs done.