Move Over Spielberg

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - With the right hardware and software, anyone can turn a PC into a digital movie studio.

Those of us who grew up in the '50s and '60s may be suppressing memories of old home movies. Remember how Dad filmed every picnic, school play, and graduation day, then spliced the reels with tape and made the family endure his shaky, out-of-focus productions?

Fast-forward to the present. Modern camcorders offer automatic exposure and focus, technology to steady shaky pictures, and CD-quality stereo sound. Plus, we can watch finished movies on a television--no need to lug out a big white screen or find empty wall space. But more important, PCs are finally powerful enough to let us edit our amateur footage and create professional-looking movies.

Further helping matters, the newest generation of camcorders store images in digital format on special tapes, resulting in better quality. Older, analog camcorders store video as a gradation of electrical signal strengths with an infinite number of possible values. Due to limitations in hardware and media, the signal will never be captured, transmitted, or transferred with 100 percent accuracy. Its quality will degrade further with each reproduction--just like a photocopy. In contrast, a digital camcorder encodes information as a sequence of ones and zeros, so when it's transferred, you either get it or you don't.

Liken the difference between analog and digital to shades of the truth versus a yes/no answer.

To produce polished movies, you must transfer video from the tape to your PC and massage it with software. Fortunately, new capture cards and applications make importing video into your PC easier and less expensive than in years past.

We tested a cross-section of products designed for everyone from beginners looking to clean up their home videos to semiprofessionals who want to produce corporate training films or even independent cinema.

Video Editing Checklist

Producing your cinema verite involves three distinct phases: capturing the "raw" video from your camcorder, editing it on your PC, and writing the finished product to either a computer file or videotape. You'll need a camcorder, of course, and at least a midrange Pentium computer with 64MB of RAM. Video editing is one of the most demanding tasks for a computer, so you'll get better results with a faster PC and more memory. You'll need ample hard drive space, because video takes up gobs of it. In addition, you'll generally have to install an expansion card that provides input ports for connecting the camcorder.

Most digital camcorders come with a high-speed IEEE 1394 port, sometimes called by different trademarked names such as FireWire (Apple Computer Inc.) or I.Link (Sony Corp.). To import video from a digital camcorder, you'll need an IEEE 1394 expansion card for your PC, unless it came with the ports. Most new Sony and Apple computers have integrated 1394 ports, and other makers, such as Compaq, include them on select models.

You can buy a video capture card and editing software either as stand-alone products or in bundles that include both. The combination packages are the best choice if you're just getting started in video editing (because the items cost less than if you'd bought them separately), but stand-alone software offers a wider range of capabilities. For this roundup, we concentrated on products designed for digital camcorders, because they will provide the best quality, speed, and ease of use when combined with a properly outfitted PC. Those products included eight digital capture cards bundled with software, another digital card without software, and three stand-alone editing applications. But we also tested two products designed exclusively for analog camcorders, plus another card that captures both analog and digital video.

Importing Analog Video Into Your PC

Importing video into your pc is the first step in the editing process. Using a digital camcorder and digital capture card will better preserve the original quality. However, if you already own an analog camcorder (VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, or Hi-8) and piles of analog tapes, you can use an analog video capture card for converting the footage to a digital format that you can edit on the computer.

We tested three cards that offer analog capture capabilities: The Matrox Marvel G400-TV ($299), the Pinnacle Systems Studio DC10plus ($229), and Pinnacle's DV500 ($999). The Matrox is a 2D/3D graphics card with built-in video capture circuitry, and it includes an external "breakout box." This box, about the size of a paperback book, connects to the back of the graphics card with a thick cable and allows you to connect a camcorder, VCR, and television to the card without having to crawl around behind your PC. The G400-TV also includes a built-in TV tuner, which allows you to watch television in a window on your desktop.

Pinnacle's Studio DC10plus is an add-in capture card that provides inputs and outputs for analog video from VHS and 8mm camcorders, as well as the higher-quality (but still analog) S-Video produced by Hi-8 camcorders. (Digital camcorders can also output S-Video, but you'll get better results with digital output and a digital capture card.) The Pinnacle DV500 provides IEEE 1394 ports on the card and a breakout box with analog inputs. All three products come with capture and editing software.

Digitizing analog video poses some inherent challenges. First, video must be highly compressed for importing into your PC. Then, after editing the video, it gets decompressed for writing the finished product to tape. The video remains compressed--and may be further compressed--if you're creating a RealVideo file for a Web site or an AVI file for a CD-ROM.

The amount of compression is governed by a codec (compressor/decompressor) algorithm. Both the Matrox Marvel G400-TV and the Pinnacle DC10plus use the M-JPEG (Motion-JPEG) codec, the most common for video work. M-JPEG, however, is a "lossy" codec, meaning it actually discards part of the video to decrease its file size. Often the process can degrade the image quality. The degradation won't be as visible if you start with high-quality video, like that produced by a Hi-8 camcorder. But if you start with the lower-resolution video produced by a VHS, VHS-C, or 8mm camcorder, the quality loss can be dramatic. You may not require the highest quality if you're editing backyard family videos, but you may feel differently if you're shooting company training films or an "event video," such as a wedding.

The Pinnacle DV500, in contrast, uses the "lossless" digital video (DV) codec that doesn't discard data, even for storing captured analog video. That codec preserves better quality than M-JPEG, even with video from low-resolution cameras. But the best results still come from a high-quality analog original or from a digital source. As always: Garbage in, garbage out.

Tune In, Dropouts

Each second of video is made up of 30 individual frames--still images that your brain assembles to form the illusion of full motion. At less than 30 frames per second, video can look choppy, especially in scenes with a lot of movement.

Unfortunately, frames are sometimes lost, or "dropped" when video is imported to a PC.

Many things can cause frames to drop. If your PC's processor can't digitize the data fast enough or its hard drive can't spin fast enough to write it, you may lose frames. That becomes more likely if you have other applications running in the background, hogging system resources. Sometimes we saw dropped frames at the beginning of a capture session because the camcorder took a few seconds to come up to speed.

Some capture cards are also more prone to dropping frames. Both the Matrox Marvel G400-TV and Pinnacle DC10plus cards dropped frames in nearly every capture session, causing the video to look jumpy sometimes. In our repeated tests, both the Matrox and Pinnacle products lost anywhere from a couple to several dozen frames during 15-minute capture sessions. The Pinnacle DV500 seldom dropped frames when capturing analog video. When it did, it tended to lose only one or two at the very beginning of a capture--making the bad footage easy to trim.

You won't notice the occasional dropped frame. But put enough of them together, and your finished video starts to look like a film that was spliced too many times. You can minimize the damage by capturing at a lower resolution, choosing a different codec (some require less CPU power), or reducing the quality setting within the codec. Also, close all other applications--if your e-mail automatically checks for messages in the middle of a capture session, you'll probably lose frames. In addition, we found that video editing performance bogs down if your PC is connected to a network.

The Matrox Marvel and the Pinnacle DC10plus are relatively easy to set up and use, despite minor problems with dropped frames, and both work well for most purposes. We especially liked the Pinnacle DC10plus's bundled capture and editing software, which provides features similar to those in the company's Studio DV (covered below). For the serious video maker, the pricey Pinnacle DV500 will take more effort to learn, but it will give much better editing results. For analog capture, however, our nod goes to the Matrox G400-TV because it accelerates 2D and 3D graphics performance and includes a few useful extras, such as the breakout box.

Importing Digital Video

Importing digital video into your PC is considerably easier than capturing and digitizing analog video, because you're merely copying digital data from the camera to the PC across a high-speed link--just like copying files from any PC storage peripheral. Think of a DV camcorder as a digital tape backup drive, with each standard one-hour tape holding 13GB of data.

Digital camcorders have their own on-board circuitry that compresses the video data coming from the CCD (charge-coupled device) before it's written to the digital tape. And unlike the lossy M-JPEG compression used by most analog capture cards, the industry-standard DV codec is lossless, resulting in very high-quality images. In addition, the video never suffers from the deterioration incurred by analog-to-digital-to-analog conversions (which happens when you capture video from our analog camcorders, edit it, then export back to the camcorder).

Even when you import digital video into your PC via the fast IEEE 1394 interface, you can't transfer it any faster than your camcorder can play a tape: Five minutes of tape take 5 minutes to transfer. No digital (or analog) camcorder offers a higher transfer rate, mainly because transferring at normal playback speed is already taxing for most PCs.

The various bundles we reviewed that come with both an IEEE 1394 capture card and editing software include Pinnacle's Studio DV ($199), Studio DC10-plus ($229), and DV500 ($999); Digital Origin's IntroDV ($199), EditDV 2.0 ($799), and MotoDV Studio 2.0 ($899); and ADS Technologies' Pyro Digital Video 1394 card ($99). Adaptec's $699 HotConnect Ultra 8945 card doesn't include editing software, but it does have an Ultra Wide SCSI interface for connecting fast hard drives to store the video.

We installed each 1394 capture card in our test systems without much difficulty. Windows detected every card on startup and asked for a driver. (You will need to be running Windows 98, and preferably Windows 98 SE for the best IEEE 1394 support.) Although Windows 98 includes its own IEEE 1394 driver, it's crucial that you use the driver that comes with the card you install: We found that Windows' generic driver invariably caused more dropped frames.

Putting It In The Can

DV content streams from the camcorder to your PC (and back when you write to tape) across the 1394 bus at 3.6MB per second. A little math shows why you need a big (and fast) hard drive: Just 15 minutes of captured video, for example, will take up more than 3.24GB of hard disk space. To be safe, you should have a hard drive capable of writing 4MB of data per second (most modern drives can handle that). A slower drive may interrupt the data flow, resulting in dropped frames.

Overall, we found that IEEE 1394 cards did a good-to-excellent job at capturing digital video. But even with their ultrafast transfer rates, the cards may still drop frames occasionally. Pinnacle's DV500 card was the performance exception--it never dropped frames in DV capture. The Adaptec HotConnect Ultra 8945 card came in a close second to the Pinnacle.

All editing software uses similar methods for working on footage. Video is captured in segments that are saved as different files, or clips. You can trim either end of a clip, but you can't cut anything out of the middle unless you further subdivide it into smaller files whose ends fall into the areas you want to edit.

Every DV-enabled software package we tested has an interface that allows you to control your camcorder (play, pause, fast-forward, and so on), thereby turning your PC into a video-editing tape deck. You can preview your video in a small window on the PC, but you can also connect your camcorder to a standard television or video monitor. To import video from the camera to a computer, simply click a capture button on your screen. The software will signal your camcorder to begin playing.

Pinnacle's products have software that automatically divides a tape into clips and creates a gallery of thumbnails showing the beginning of each scene. (Most of the other applications we reviewed require you to create individual clips manually.) With any of the products, you can capture clips based on jumps in the time code: All DV camcorders automatically embed a date, time, and frame code into the video signal, and all the applications can read it. However, Pinnacle's software can recognize when content has changed--a new camera angle, for example--even if you haven't stopped taping between scenes.

The Cutting Room Floor

After you've imported your video and assembled your clips, the editing begins.

The nitty-gritty of the process involves putting segments of video in the order you desire and trimming them. Then you can add transitions, titles, and even background music or narration to create a polished product.

The software packages we tested accomplish these tasks in either a "storyboard" or a "timeline" format. In a storyboard, you arrange clips containing both video and audio in linear order by dragging and dropping them into a window, then adding transitions between them. In this process, clips are represented by thumbnail images of a single frame. In a timeline format, video clips, audio tracks, titles, and transitions each have their own separate, stacked bars, which can overlap.

Both the storyboard and timeline methods depend largely on dragging and dropping. We found the storyboard approach much easier and more natural for beginners. But a timeline gives you more control over the finished product because you can tweak elements individually. Most of the packages we tested feature both the storyboard and timeline options. The exceptions are the MGI VideoWave II, which offers only a storyboard, and the high-end Digital Origin EditDV, which uses the timeline format only.

Both storyboard and timeline let you insert transitions to smooth changeovers between video clips. All the editing packages offer a large variety of premade transitions, ranging from simple fade-out/ fade-in to psychedelic twirling à la Batman. We found the simplest transitions (fades and dissolves) looked the most professional; the fancier ones were more jarring.

The editing software gives you the option of easily adding titles--stationary or animated words on top of the video--with a variety of fonts and colors. You can also add music and narration (though voiceovers can be tricky, because you must match them exactly to the length of clips). Each package comes with a library of sound effects and music clips. But we especially liked the Pinnacle products, which provide a wide variety of background music tracks in many different styles and automatically fit them to the length of your video.

Each editing package we tested is intended for a different audience and level of experience. Overall, Pinnacle Systems' Studio DV best combines features, ease of use, and affordability. It's the most intuitive we tested, allowing you to create basic videos in the shortest time but also offering more advanced features than you'd expect from such a low-cost package. For very simple edits, try the Ulead VideoStudio 4 software bundled with the ADS Pyro Digital 1394. It includes a step-by-step wizard for basic edits. MGI Software's VideoWave III is a well-priced package that includes some eye-popping visual effects, such as the ability to layer multiple video clips and vary their opacity.

Adobe Systems' Premiere 5.1 and Digital Origin's EditDV 2.0 are for professionals, although that doesn't preclude their use by casual filmmakers.

If you invest in one of these packages, however, be prepared for a steep learning curve, especially with Premiere. In addition, Premiere pushes your PC to its limits.

Pinnacle's DV500 package includes Premiere RT, an advanced version of Premiere available only when bundled with capture cards. Its real-time feature allows you to view the movie as you create it. With other packages, you can see a video in its entirety only after you've rendered it--that is, hit a button to implement the trims, transitions, and other effects you have selected while editing.

We didn't test the Avid Cinema software included with the Matrox Marvel G400-TV, because it may no longer be available when you read this (and at press time, Matrox hadn't decided what software will replace Cinema).

Let's Go To The Tape

The final step in the process is rendering, in which all the parts of your movie are combined in a format that can be written to videotape or other media.

The rendering time depends on several elements, including the length of your movie, the number and complexity of the effects, the speed of your PC, its available RAM, and hard disk speed.

Rendering uses all your PC's resources and can last from a few minutes for a simple, short movie (say, two minutes with only a couple of transitions and titles) to an hour or more for a longer, complex project. Real-time products, like the version of Adobe Premiere included in Pinnacle's DV500, reduce rendering time because they implement many simple effects as you're editing the video. Ulead's software and Digital Origin's IntroDV both offer similar features that do some of the job in the background as you edit. However, with these two products, you must still render the finished movie at the end.

Pinnacle Studio DV offers a "preview" capture mode that stores a low-resolution version of the raw video for your editing work. Instead of the 3.6MB of data per second required for a full DV-compressed file, the preview uses about 50KB per second. After you've put your movie together in the preview mode, simply hit a button, and Studio DV automatically captures the full-resolution video from the original DV tape, then implements all the edits and effects you've selected for the finished product. Making our edits in this low-resolution mode didn't seem to affect quality, and we liked how the process speeds up editing.

In most cases--especially with digital video--you'll want to export your finished masterpiece to a fresh DV tape in a camcorder. All the products we reviewed can export to DV format, but they differ in their ability to export finished video in other formats. Digital Origin's products, for example, export to QuickTime files that play on both PCs and Macs. Pinnacle Studio DV's software can save your video as AVI or MPEG-1 files that play on virtually any computer. With all of these formats, you can vary the level of compression--trading file size against quality--depending on whether the movie is destined for videotape or the Web (Studio DV can also save your output as a RealVideo file for posting on a Web site).

Some software packages offer more exotic export options. Ulead VideoStudio 4 and MGI Video-Wave III can export video in high-quality MPEG-2 for writing to a DVD-ROM--assuming you have access to a DVD-ROM recorder. But the title for most comprehensive output goes to Digital Origin's EditDV, which lets you fine-tune the output for a variety of media--tape, Web, CD--using a large selection of different formats and codecs. Adobe Premiere is mainly designed for export to videotape in a wide variety of formats, including professional broadcast, but it can export to other formats as well.

And The Oscar Goes To...

If you're a beginner or you don't require professional quality, we suggest going with an integrated package such as Pinnacle's Studio DV. It will serve a wide range of users working with digital video. For those with analog camcorders, the Matrox Marvel G400-TV performs well.

If you're looking at more serious projects, such as training videos, or you dream of making your own independent movie, you may want Pinnacle's professional-level DV500 package. Although its $999 price sounds high, it offers features and capabilities that cost $12,000 to $15,000 just a couple years ago.

The movies you make with these packages may not get you a call from Spielberg's people. But with a bit of effort, you'll be able to produce a quality finished project that your audience will gladly watch, even without a pot of strong coffee to keep them awake.

Stan Miastkowski is a PC World contributing editor.

Movie Stars

You go high, I'll go low: The video capture cards and editing software from Pinnacle Systems make cinematography so easy, you'll wonder why Spielberg and Scorsese get all that money. We found the $199 Studio DV--an integrated package of IEEE 1394 capture card and video editing software--one of the simplest editing packages to use. But it still provides features to create everything from a sappy tear-jerker to a film noir. Its burly cousin, the $999 DV500, includes a capture card with IEEE 1394 ports, plus a breakout box for connecting analog video sources. It also comes with Adobe Premiere RT, a version of the high-end editing package that renders most transitions and effects on the fly.

Choosing a Camera

You can purchase an analog camcorder for a song. But if you're serious about editing video on your PC, you should change your tune to a digital video unit.

Digital camcorders produce stunning-quality video: 500 lines of resolution, as opposed to the 250 for VHS-C, 350 for 8mm, and 400 for Hi-8. And because it's digital, video can be copied to a PC, edited, and copied back to a fresh DV tape without any loss of quality.

Mini-DV cameras from manufacturers such as Canon, Panasonic, Sharp, and Sony use a matchbox-size tape cartridge that stores an hour of video (or 90 minutes in extended mode, which degrades quality slightly). Sony's high-end digital camcorders store video in mini-DV format, but its consumer-level cameras, dubbed Digital8, store DV data on standard, less-expensive Hi-8 analog tapes instead of DV cartridges, and you can even use lower-cost 8mm tapes. Mini-DV tapes cost about $12 each and hold one hour of footage; Hi-8 tapes cost $6 to $10 (depending on quality) and hold two hours.

Most digital camcorders (mini-DV and Digital8) include IEEE 1394 ports for copying video to and from your PC. Standard features on nearly every unit include CD-quality stereo sound, automatic focus and exposure, image stabilization (a mechanism that reduces jumpiness in video), and flip-out LCD viewfinders.

Best of all, prices of DV camcorders are falling rapidly, with models starting at about $700. Higher-priced models (in the $1200-$1500 range) offer advanced features such as built-in special effects and the options of manual focusing, exposure, and shutter speed.

Putting It All Together

You own a DV camcorder, and you're sitting on piles of tapes. Now it's time to put together a movie. Although the packages we looked at all have their own personalities, the basic steps are similar. Here's how it works with Pinnacle's Studio DV.

Video Glossary

Just when you thought you were familiar with computer jargon, along comes PC-based video editing--with its own set of terms, acronyms, and buzzwords.

Here are a few that you should know.

Analog Video that is stored as a stream of varying signal strengths on tape used by VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, and Hi-8 camcorders.

Capture Video Imported from a camcorder to a PC for editing.

CCD Charge-coupled device--a chip that converts light into electrical signals, analogous to the eye's retina.

Clip A segment of captured video. Individual clips can be assembled into a finished movie.

CODEC Short for compressor/decompressor. A protocol dictating how to compress video (for convenient storage and editing) and decompress it for writing back to tape.

Composite Video An analog video format with all information encoded into a single signal.

Digital Video stored in a binary (computer) format.

Digitize Video converted from an analog source into digital format.

Dissolve A video effect in which one scene fades out while another fades in.

DV Abbreviation for Digital Video. DV camcorders store video in binary code (ones and zeros) instead of varying analog signal strengths.

Frame A single still image of video. Showing frames in succession gives the illusion of movement.

HI-8 A high-quality 8mm analog camcorder format that produces 400 lines of resolution.

IEEE 1394 A high-speed serial interface (also known by brand names FireWire and I.Link) for copying digital video to a PC and back to the camcorder after editing.

Lossless Compression Compression that doesn't discard data, thereby preserving the original quality. DV is an example.

Lossy Compression Compression that discards some of the data in video to minimize the storage space required. M-JPEG is an example.

Rendering Combining all the elements of an edited video into a format for writing to tape or other media.

S-Video A video signal used by Hi-8 camcorders, in which the luminance (brightness) and chrominance (color) information are separated. Most DV camcorders also offer S-Video connections.

Time Code The date, time, and frame information embedded in DV recordings; it can be read by editing software to break up clips.

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