A tip for amateur moviemakers: Record everything!

Today was our first snow of the year. It started at 6 this morning and was supposed to be flurries with accumulation of a fraction of an inch. It’s still snowing right now and I suspect there’s a good two inches on the ground. But the long commute isn’t bothering me. Scraping snow isn’t bothering me.
I got called in to work early and didn’t have a chance to record any of the snowfall. That’s what’s bothering me.

You see, I’ve got this idea festering in my head. It’s a story that’ll make a great three-minute video, and it involves snowfall. A few snippets filmed today would have worked just fine.

I’m home now and I’ve got time to set up the camera, but the daylight is long gone. My opportunity passed me by. But it reminded me of a principle: Record everything. EVERYTHING. You never know when you’ll need it.

So the next time there’s a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky, get out the camera and record a couple of minutes of it. Capture the birds singing and the full trees swaying in the wind. When autumn comes and the trees are changing their colors, film a couple of minutes of it. Record a couple of minutes of a thunderstorm. And record a snowfall.

If you’re going on a trip, take the camera. Record something distinctive about the place you’re going. Record anything you come across that’s safe and legal and halfway interesting. Define “interesting” as something your next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day.

Example: While driving around in downtown Kansas City last week, while stopped at a stoplight, there was an obvious drug deal going on in a gas station parking lot to the right. That’s something my next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day. Legally I was entitled to record it too–I was observing from public property. Now was it safe for me to be recording it? Good question.

Another example: We were walking around in Crown Center, an indoor shopping mall known for exotic stuff. Lots of interesting things to see there. Also something my neighbor doesn’t see every day. Perfectly safe. But illegal to record–Crown Center is private property. There were news cameras set up outside. They could record what was going on outside the building, from the public street.

Sometimes you can’t take a video camera where you’re going. So take a still camera. Digital is better for video purposes, of course, but take what you have. A ’70s-style Polaroid is better than nothing. A still shot (or series of still shots) of that drug deal going on might have been safer to shoot than a minute of video, and just as dramatic, if not more. And a still shot of something that doesn’t move is just as good as video of something that moves. You can pan and zoom on a still shot to make it move, or take a series of still shots from different angles.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that Gatermann’s just as likely to have a camera with him as he is shoes. And he gets a lot of really good stuff in the most unlikely of places. One of the pictures of me at the top of this page was taken in a restaurant, and the other was taken onboard Metrolink, which is St. Louis’ mass-transit train.

Also remember that mixing media works. It doesn’t really matter too much if some of your material is digital video, some of it’s analog video, some of it’s single stills, and some of it’s a series of stills. Nor does it matter if some of it is color and some of it black and white. Contrast can have a dramatic effect too. If all your stuff’s the same, figure out how to make it work. If all of it’s different, figure out how to make that work. Just remember that differences will naturally call attention to themselves, so figure out how to take advantage of that when it’s a good thing and to downplay it when it’s not.

Record things even if you don’t have an immediate use in mind for them. Sometimes creativity is having an idea in mind and then going and getting the parts for what you want to make. And sometimes creativity is looking at the parts you have and figuring out what you can make out of it. But usually it’s a little bit of both.

Transferring VHS movies to VCD or DVD

Mail from Maurie Reed about VHS home movie transfers to digital formats.
MR: Dave, I’ve read all of your threads on video editing with interest. I’m not claiming to have understood everything but I’m less in the dark than I was before ( a 20 watt bulb as compared to a 10?).

DF: Remember, there are people who get 4-year degrees in this stuff. And graduate degrees after that.

MR: My question is: does the Pinnacle DV500 work in conjunction with a regular AGP video card or is it the sole video device in the system?

DF: It works in conjunction with another card. The DV500 does the heavy lifting and then sends its display over to the other card. So if you’ve got a DV500, any video card on the market today will be way more than enough. I used an S3 Savage4 card for a long time, and it was fine.

MR: Maybe better yet, what I’d lke to do is take the VHS tapes that we have made of the family over the years and transfer them to DVD. The first reason is to archive them for safety. After that’s done I’d like to edit them for quality, i.e., clean up, lighten,etc.

DF: PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff has done some columns on that. His approach, using Sonic MyDVD 4.0 (though Dazzle DVD Complete gets better reviews), is simpler than mine and eliminates the DV500, though you’ll still need some way to get the analog video into your PC. An ATI All-In-Wonder card would be good for that. I know Newegg has the less-expensive All-in-Wonders sometimes but they tend to sell out quickly so you’ll probably have to use their notify feature. Then you can spend the money you’d spend on a DV500 on a DVD writer instead (I suggest one of the Sony drives that can do DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW, that way if one format works better in your DVD player, you’re not stuck.

Keep in mind that Ulanoff used Firewire to get his video in, but that’s because he used Hi8 as his source, and those tapes will work in a Digital8 camera. If you’re using VHS, you’re limited to using analog inputs.

What you gain in simplicity you lose in power, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MR: Toward this end I’ve been slowly building up a new machine: P4-2.4, Asus P4-533E, 512M PC-2700 RAM, 120G WD HD (SCSI’s not quite in the budget right now although I do have some Adaptec 2940 cards). I’m running an old S3 8M video card in it right now to test components (all from newegg…thanks for thesuggestion!) and I have no DVD-ROM drive or DVD burner yet (I do have a LiteOn CDRW). I thought I’d work on the video first. I’m sure at some point down the road we would like to do more video but never anything professional (read – making money at it). It would probably be my wife and daughters working with it anyway as I’m more of an audio person then video.

DF: You’re off to a great start. Add a DVD burner and an All-In-Wonder card (or a similar nVidia card with analog inputs–if your camera or VCR supports S-Video, use that, since its picture quality is noticeably better) and you’re ready to go. You might want to grab a smallish drive to hold your OS and apps so you can dedicate the WD drive just to video. Watch the post-Thanksgiving sales. For VHS-to-DVD transfers, IDE is sufficient.

Since you do have a CD burner, if you want to get started right away, get the All-In-Wonder and the software and start making VCDs, then get the DVD burner later.

As for being an audio person rather than a video person, I come at it from a magazine/newspaper background. I think it’s a shorter step from audio to video than it is from print to video! (And you knowing what it takes to make the video sound good is a very good thing. The audio quality on some of my projects has been positively awful.)

MR: I understand you’re very busy and NOT in the free advice business so I’ll understand if you decline to comment.

Thanks (no matter what the answer) in advance and have a great Thanksgiving!

DF: Thanks for the good questions. You have a great Thanksgiving too.

Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.

Looking for stock video footage?

I’ve talked about archive.org before. I revisited it this evening. As usual, another hundred or so films have been added. A handful of selections from another library, owned by the University of South Carolina, have trickled in.
But most importantly, many of the films in the Prelinger collection, which currently numbers 1,255 films, now have descriptions and the ability to view with RealPlayer in streaming format. So if you need a clip showing New York City, you can do a search and view the films to see if the clip is suitable before you spend a lot of time downloading a monster MPEG-2 file.

And since the copyright on these films has long since lapsed (if ever it was copyrighted in the first place), you can use it.

Some of the films are interesting to watch in their own right. The film The Challenge of Ideas shows just how much we’ve changed in 40 years. Some of the changes are good–virtually all of the narrators held lit cigarettes in their right hand as they spoke.

But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think the ACLU would never permit this film to be made by the U.S. Government today. For one thing, it showed churches and used the now-controversial phrase “Nation under God.”

The film talked about winning to Cold War in people’s minds. But the film’s description of the Soviets sounds an awful lot like today’s United States. Meanwhile, our values infiltrated the former Soviet Union. So who really did win the Cold War?

There’s also a lot of footage that shows the flip-side of the fifties. I remember in my 20th Century U.S. History class in college, my professor drove home the thought that Happy Days was a myth–there was a darker side. The films in this archive certainly show that–the beginnings of the demolition of historic neighborhoods to build pre-fab buildings, drug addiction, oppression. And of course there was the ever-present threat of war. I don’t know that the Fabulous Fifties were actually any darker than the decades that followed it. But they don’t seem to have been much better.

This stuff almost makes me want to be a history teacher.

But I’ll probably just abuse it as stock footage instead. I don’t have to go back to school to do that.

Video editing on a shoestring

When you go to a church like Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, or St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ellisville, Mo., it’s easy to get overwhelmed with their video productions. They produce slick, professional, grabbing pieces that wouldn’t look out of place on broadcast TV.
Then you go look at their production studios, and feel overwhelmed. I know one of the computers St. John’s uses cost $10,000. That’s not counting the video decks and cameras. You can spend $50,000 to get the stuff you “need” to get serious about making movies.

I don’t have 50 grand and I don’t know anyone who does. If I were getting into this today, these are the things I would buy:

1. Computer. Get an IBM-compatible. All the critical apps for editing are available on PCs, and you can get a PC for next to nothing. Yes, you can edit on an iMac. I wouldn’t want to. At Faith Lutheran Church in Oakville, we edit on a P4 1.5 GHz. I can’t remember if it has 128 or 256 MB of RAM. It does have two 10K RPM SCSI drives. I suggest buying a PC with a gigahertz-plus CPU, DDR memory to be sure (yes, SDRAM is cheap, but speed of memory seems to be more important than quantity–you should be perfectly happy with 256 MB of DDR), and a couple of SCSI drives. Today’s IDE drives are fast enough for pure DV work, but you might not always have DV sources. Use some of the money you save by not buying a Mac to buy SCSI drives. A pair of 36-gig drives was sufficient to produce a 22-minute documentary with room to spare.

Hint: Get your SCSI drives at www.hypermicro.com. Fast delivery, good prices, great customer service. They don’t give me any freebies or any money and I have no affiliation with them. They just have the best prices on SCSI stuff I’ve found.

The budget varies. A $1,000 PC will suffice but you might want more power.

2. Pinnacle DV500. This card is very finicky, so go to www.pinnaclesys.com and look at their installation guides. Buy a motherboard or system they have a guide for. Follow their instructions precisely. I got the DV500 to work on a motherboard Pinnacle didn’t test, but it took me a week.

There are other boards from Matrox and Canopus. The boards look good on paper. I’m not familiar with them. If you compare them with a DV500 and their offerings look better, feel free to get one of them. I haven’t looked, because I was in the market a year ago and at the time the DV500 was the best. I don’t look now because I might be tempted to buy.

Whatever you get, make sure it comes with Adobe Premiere or Sonicfoundry Vegas Video at a minimum. Most boards throw in some titling software and other extras. You want them. Titling isn’t Premiere’s forte. Pinnacle’s titling app is so simple to use, it’s frightening. Remember, Premiere costs mosre on its own than these editing boards, and these boards accelerate some of Premiere’s functions.

I like Premiere but it’s what I leanred. Some people tell me Vegas is easier to learn initially.

The other thing these boards give you, besides acceleration of some video functions, is firewire ports and composite and S-Video inputs and outputs, which you’ll need at the very least for video preview, and for taking video input from analog sources.

Budget $500.

3. Monitors. A dual-head display isn’t a necessity but it’s nice if you can afford to do it. I use a 19-inch NEC Multisync (the model I have is discontinued), and Faith uses the same monitor. A pair of NEC or Mitsubishi monitors would be nice. Get a 19 and a 17 or two 17s if your budget is tight. But we survive just fine on single 19s. Budget at least $200.

A video monitor is a must because your video will look different on TV than it does on your SVGA monitors. A $70 13-inch TV from a local discount house will do fine as long as it has composite inputs, as most do today. I use an old Commodore 1702 monitor (the standard-issue monitor for the Commodore 64) and it’s fabulous, but those are in short supply today. A monitor with S-Video inputs would be nice, but I like to look at my video on lowest-common-denominator equipment. If the device has both types on inputs, hook them both up and check how your work looks both ways. Budget $99.

4. VCR. You’ll need one. The nicer the better, of course, but if all you can afford is a $60 discount house model or a hand-me-down, that’s fine. You’ll be asked for VHS copies of your work, and sometimes you’ll have to use VHS as a source. Budget $75.

5. Camera. I learned on JVC cameras so I’m partial to them. Digital-8 is cheaper, but MiniDV is the emerging standard. If you shop around, you can find a MiniDV camera for under $500, especially if you’re willing to buy a refurb. Nice extras are image stabilization and inputs for an external microphone. You can live without those, but it’s best if you can get them. And you definitely need a tripod. Get one with a fluid head for smooth motion. I bought the cheapest Bogan fluid-head tripod ($130 at a local camera shop) and love it. Budget $650.

6. Lights. Talk to a photographer. We haven’t bought any yet, and it shows.

Assuming you already have a suitable PC and monitor, you can get going for under $1,500. Later, you’ll want to add Adobe AfterEffects and a good sound editor, and more cameras, and more lights, and you’ll work your way towards 50 grand. But the most important thing is to have stories to tell. Tell great stories, and people will find money to fund your video work.

Looks like Premiere 6.5 will be a keeper

Adobe announced Premiere 6.5 yesterday, and it’s got just about everything that should have been in 6.0.
It promises to work better with native DV (which will alleviate the need for hardware like the Pinnacle DV500 card), provides native tools for exporting your video to DVD, VCD, and SVCD, and a titling app, a busload of fonts, better audio tools, and real-time effects and transitions. That’s probably the most important thing; it’s annoying to apply a bunch of effects and then to have to wait a few minutes for it to render all the frames, only to find it wasn’t quite what you were looking for.

I guess it’s like the difference between a film camera and digital. Read more

What I’ve learned in my current video project

This is a selfish post. I want to record my notes of what I’ve learned on my current project so I don’t forget them, and so I can access them anywhere. Other video hobbyists might benefit.
This is almost exclusively theory, so it should be applicable to any video editing software/equipment you find. But as far as specific tips for helping Premiere… I doubt there’ll be anything directly applicable. Read more

My video editing ephiphany

Something I learned yesterday. And it was entirely a happy accident. But many things that appear to have artistic quality are nothing but happy accidents.
My copy of Adobe Premiere 6.0 had a second disc in the jewel. I had assumed it was just tryout versions of other Adobe software, or a tutorial disc, so I never really paid much attention to it. It turned out to be a disc titled SmartSound QuickTracks for Adobe Premiere. It’s awfully cool, in reality. Install it, and then you can go into File, New in Premiere and select QuickTrack. Click Launch Maestro, and up pops a wizard-style interface. Pick a few options that describe the nature of your piece (style, mood, etc.) and tell it how long you want your audio clip to be, and it’ll loop musical bits in its library to give you one or more sound clips as close to your specifications as possible. Play them, and if any are satisfactory, it’ll generate a file and drop it into one of Premiere’s bins for you.

Very slick. And professional films almost always have a soundtrack to them. The reason is pretty simple. Music can heighten mood, and changes in the soundtrack can delineate segments of the film.

But I learned another reason. The video, with Luke speaking, had a lot of room noise in it, and I found it distracting. I tried filtering out the noise, but that’s hard to do if you don’t have any experience doing it. By the time I was done, his voice was crystal clear, but he sounded like a speech synthesizer. Imagine an old Texas Instruments Speak ‘n Spell with intonation and mood, and you’ll have a pretty good idea how Luke sounded. So I left the noise in there. (With pro equipment, you record room noise with one mic and the subject with another mic, so you can turn down the room noise at will. But I didn’t use pro equipment.)

What I found, after inserting a loop of Mozart being played softly on piano, was that Luke sounded clearer. The music covered up the distracting elements of the room noise, leaving just enough that you could still tell Luke was recorded in a living room, not a sound room. But the distracting element was camouflaged. And Mozart made me concentrate on what Luke was saying.

Steve DeLassus tells me this discovery qualifies me as a scientist.

I tried a couple of other pieces and found they didn’t work so well, so some experimentation is usually necessary. But it made the video look a whole lot more professional and a whole lot more polished. I won’t impress people in the audience who have Premiere and have loaded the same disc (I recognized a few of the more contemporary pieces as very commonly used stock music footage, mostly from low-budget commercials) but impressing people isn’t the goal anyway.

Of course once you get sick of the freebie tunes or if you can’t find an appropriate one, you can buy bigger libraries at $295 a pop. And that’s something I’ll probably do at some point.

If you happen to have Premiere (and if you don’t, I recommend you pick up a Pinnacle DV200 card, which sells for under $300 and includes Premiere, SmartSound QuickTracks, Photoshop LE, Pinnacle’s very nice DVTools for automatically scanning and cataloging your tapes, and plug-ins for titling and transitions–you get more functionality than Apple Final Cut Pro delivers, and Final Cut Pro costs $995), adding a musical score is a good way to spice up your home movies. I’m sure that someday the RIAA will determine that the use of commercial music in people’s home videos is the cause of declining record sales–since it can’t be the economy or the declining quality of new releases–but until that happens, private use of the music in your record collection will be covered under fair use. So I’m sure I’ll have to license rights to use U2’s “Kite” in the video I want shown at my funeral service in 2101, but for the time being, if you want to integrate Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” into your vacation video, no one’s going to stop you.

Speaking of which, not to sound morbid, but give “Kite” a listen if you happen to have All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I can’t think of a cooler song to play at a funeral. “Who’s to know when the time has come around / Don’t want to see you cry / I know that this is not goodbye.” Although, admittedly, I misunderstood the line “I’m a man / I’m not a child” as “I’m a man / I’m out of time,” which has considerably more finality. But, as is often the case, I digress.

Elementary video. This guide is very basic. But if you follow its rules to the letter, you’ll always look competent. If you’re wanting to make your home movies look better or learn the basics of video editing, it’s a good start, and considerably less expensive than the route I took. Someone else paid for my initial training, but it sure wasn’t cheap.

The other thing to remember about rules: Eventually you’ll develop a sense for when to break them. And eventually you’ll give in to that sense, and you’ll discover that some shots look great even though they stomp all over the rule of thirds. Don’t worry about it. That’s the difference between breaking rules intelligently and non-intelligently. I’m sure there are sentence fragments somewhere on this page too. Most of them are there for some reason, albeit probably sick and twisted.

Some video editing tips from the school of hard knocks

Hi. My name is Dave. I attended the best journalism school there is for broadcasting.
I paid almost zero attention in the television units, because, well, I hate TV. So I learned nothing that would be of use to me at this stage of life. Aside from how to go get a story and ask questions and gather footage, which is pretty much the same no matter what your medium is, whether it’s a newspaper, a magazine, a video documentary, a Web page, or a research paper. We all have a sense for what’s interesting and relevant. Develop that, and you can tell a story in any medium.

OK, that’s all I know about video editing theory. That was easy, wasn’t it? Aren’t you glad you didn’t pay $200 per credit hour for it?

Now let’s get practical. This is going to be most practical if you have equipment similar to mine. If you don’t, hopefully it’ll tell you something useful.

Here’s what I use to make magic happen on the boob tube:

IBM-compatible PC

  • AMD Duron 700 MHz CPU
  • 384 MB PC133 memory
  • Adaptec 19160 Ultra160 SCSI card
  • Maxtor Atlas III 10,000 RPM 18GB Ultra160 SCSI hard drive
  • Quantum Fireball 15 GB UDMA66 hard drive
  • Plextor UltraPlex 40max SCSI CD-ROM for audio capture
  • Pinnacle DV500 Plus editing/capture card
    JVC GR-DVL100 miniDV camcorder

    You can capture video with Adobe Premiere, but there’s a lot of overhead involved. It’s better to use the bundled Pinnacle DVTools app. I was in the habit of capturing with DVTools, then using the freeware VirtualDub (do a Google search) to convert those files to Indeo 5.1 format to save space. I saved a lot of disk space, but I wasted a lot of time. A PC equipped with a DV500 can do most things to DV-formatted files in realtime, whereas my setup has to render other file formats. You’re looking at 2-4 frames per second to do the initial conversion, and then Premiere renders them at a similar rate. Get monster hard drives so you can hold those larger DV files, and you’ll save lots of render time. You’ll also completely eliminate generation loss, which is the whole point of digital video in the first place, although the generation loss from rendering DV to Indeo back to DV isn’t something anyone’s likely to notice. Realistically, you’ll lose more as the signal is being transmitted from the camera to your screen than you will from three generations of conversion.

    I find playback off my UDMA drive less than adequate. It doesn’t drop frames but the video has too many artifacts. It’s fine as a holding bin for clips I might use, or for editing, but before I do my final output to tape, I move the files over to my high-speed SCSI drive.

    On some platforms, you really want to have your OS and apps on one drive, your video on another, and your audio on yet another. I find the Atlas III is more than fast enough to hold all three and get away with it. If I had to do it all again though, I’d probably still get the Atlas, and I’d get another very large but slower SCSI drive.

    When you’re editing with Premiere, you may find your hard drives fill up at an alarming rate. Before starting a project, search for directories called Adobe Premiere Preview Files and clear their contents. I found a missing 4 gigs that way. Also defragment your drives before starting on a project. You want big, contiguous blocks to hold your huge video files.

    You can’t just plug a camcorder into your firewire port and go to File, Export Timeline, Print to Tape and expect it to work. You have to put your camcorder into VTR mode first, an operation that isn’t always obvious from looking at the camera. Check your manual. On my DVL100, turning the mode knob to Play does the trick.

    Also, you can’t plug a camcorder in hot. At least not any of the JVC cameras I’ve tried. The computer will see them, but it won’t be able to control them. Shut down the computer and turn off the camera, plug in, then power both up, and they’re happy.

    Although Pinnacle’s DVTools can export DV to tape, it’s faster to do it from Premiere. It takes Premiere forever to export a video to disk in DV format, and then of course the export to tape happens in real-time. Doing it from Premiere in the first place cuts the time required by 3/4.

    And here’s a principle I learned at a seminar earlier this year at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, OH: There’s no such thing as junk video. Ginghamsburg’s video director actually advocates leaving your camera on at all times, even when you’re moving the camera, because a lot of times you’ll shoot good video unintentionally. I don’t have the battery life to be able to leave it on all the time, but I leave it on more than I normally would. I found in my last project, where I was filming fire, that the smoke and heat waves coming off the fire confused my camera’s autofocus, so the camera was trying to find what it was supposed to focus on, which futher accentuated the heat waves and produced a really haunting effect. People asked me how I did it, what it was, where I shot it. It was pretty anticlimatic, I’m sure, to hear it was just a tree off in the distance. And I got the shot strictly because I wasn’t paying attention. The fire had died down and I hadn’t noticed.

    All cameras have particular nuances. That scene probably would have looked different with another camera. I discovered later how to confuse my autofocus when I was trying to set the camera up for playback. The only way you’ll learn your camera’s nuances is to play with it. And be sure to try things with it you wouldn’t normally try. I discovered the autofocus thing when the camera was pointed at my desk at extremely close range. Believe me, there’s absolutely nothing compelling about that desk. It’s 18-year-old particle board.

    And a principle I learned myself: There are a couple of ways I find my best footage. One way is just to fast-forward through it and watch. If it’s compelling at 20x normal speed with fuzzy detail, it’s likely to be compelling when played the way it was shot. The other thing I’ll do is play the footage in my monitor, and watch out of my peripheral vision while I do something else. If it’s good enough to grab my attention, chances are it’s worth using. It’s a brutal way to edit, but if you have to condense several hours’ worth of footage into three minutes, it’s the fastest way I’ve found.

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