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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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