The problem with online streaming video

I think we may have lost a project at work today: a project to do streaming video. It’s not really our fault; our offering looked just like everyone else’s streaming video.

The problem is that our competition isn’t everyone else’s streaming video.First let’s look at the hurdles. No matter which option you pick, some percentage of your audience is going to have to download or install something. That all but eliminates Real, since I don’t think even Woodward and Bernstein could successfully track down the link to their free player every time.

Windows Media Player is easier, but won’t necessarily run on some older versions of Windows. An overwhelming number of people have Windows XP now, but not everyone does. How many hundreds of millions of copies of Windows 98 did Microsoft sell? Do you think all of those people have thrown them away yet? No. Those people will have to download and install something.

But Media Player will leave some Macintoshes in the cold. Do you want to do that if your target audience might include schools?

QuickTime is the best cross-platform solution, but again, Windows users will have to download and install something.

OK, so you got it installed. Prepare thyself for thrilling, 15 frame-per-second 160×120 video!

Translation: Video the size of a postage stamp that moves about as fast as your mailman.

Theoretically you can stream bigger and faster video, but it’s going to be jerkier if you do. There’ll be dropped frames, artifacts, and the audio may drop out. And what’s it look like when you send DVD-sized 720×480 video? Well, considering a lot of people run their monitors at 1024×768, it makes letterboxing look good. It’s not full-screen like it is when you pop a DVD into your DVD drive.

And that’s precisely the problem. The competition isn’t other people who stream video. The competition is DVDs. Computers are digital, right? So why does its video look worse than the oldest, most worn-out VHS tape at the video rental place? And why do I have to jump through so many hoops in order to play it? On a DVD, I hit the "menu" button and then I hit "enter" or "play." (Also keep in mind that some people can’t even figure out how to do that. I’m serious. I dated a girl once whose parents couldn’t figure out a DVD player, so they had to get their 15-year-old son to come hit the buttons for them.)

And that, I think, is the reason you still don’t see tons and tons of streaming video on the Web, in spite of the high availability of DSL and cable modems in the United States, the abundance of cheap bandwidth, and the cheapness of the server software (free, in the case of QuickTime, and included with Windows Server in the case of Media Player).

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

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.

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.

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

Honest, the money was burning a hole in my pocket!

I went out shopping yesterday for a white gold rope to go with a white gold cross pendant I bought a month or so ago. I’m no expert on jewelry, but my sister knows as much about jewelry as I do about computers and baseball combined, and she said I shouldn’t buy silver unless I was going to wear it all the time. I don’t wear jewelry all the time, so I took her advice and bought white gold.
I found the chain.

Then I wandered over to the electronics aisle. I saw a $129 KDS 17″ monitor. Pass. I saw other monitors of varying sizes and qualities. Then I walked down the next aisle, where I saw HP Pavilion and Sony VAIO computers. Nothing earth-shattering. Then I saw something that made me do a couple of quadruple takes. A Lexmark color laser printer. Price? Seven hundred bucks. I was shocked. I’m pretty sure the last time I looked, the cheapest color laser you could find was $1500. I remember in the summer of 1994 selling a number of color inkjet printers for $649. So $700 for a color laser printer is a significant milestone, and it’s reason not to pay more than $100-$150 for a color inkjet. If you’re serious about color printing, that laser will give far better output, much faster, and at a much lower cost per page.

Yes, I’d love to have one. But I’ve got a Lexmark 4039 I bought in 1996. It still works fabulously. It also still has the toner cartridge that came from the factory in it. Needless to say, I don’t print a lot. So I really don’t know how I could justify a color laser printer.

So I walked on. I spied some DVDs. I flipped through them. Just a bunch of mediocre movies, most of which I’d never bothered seeing, so I wouldn’t have any inclination to pay $12.99 for them either. Then I turned around. Camcorders! I saw some Sony and Hitachi models, VHS-C and Digital-8, priced very nicely. Very nicely. At $200, I don’t understand why camcorders aren’t as common as VCRs were 10 years ago. You can get a nice camcorder now for what a nice VCR cost then. But that wasn’t what I was looking for.

Next section: JVC and Sony camcorders. Much pricier, but they had the magic word I was looking for: miniDV. I looked at the price: $480 on the entry model. That was about half what the entry models cost the last time I looked. I played around with it. The picture was awfully nice. I played around with the more expensive models. The picture wasn’t any nicer. So I wrote down the model numbers. At $480, I was almost ready to buy right then and there. But $480 is too much to spend casually, so I did a little research online.

Camcorder tip: Go ahead and search the Web for camcorder specs and reviews, but expect not to find much. Searching the web gives the impression the JVC GR-DVL805 doesn’t exist. The low-end JVC GR-DVL100 did have some positive reviews. I searched Google groups and found lots of good insights on both models. (If I find a consensus amongst a bunch of hobbyists who bought a product with their own money and used it long enough to get an opinion on it, I generally trust them. I certainly trust them more than a salesman, and there are problems these people will notice that a video magazine won’t due to lack of time with the unit.)

The DVL100 is lightweight, does a great job of gathering light (most JVCs do, in my limited experience), reasonably easy to use, and the price is right. Only complaint I could find: the tape motor is close to the mic, so you’ll get some motor noise. That’s not much concern for me.

The 805 is essentially the same camera, but it can double as a 0.8-megapixel digital still camera. Other than that, it has the same strengths and weaknesses as its cheaper brother. Since a 0.8-megapixel digital still camera is essentially worthless unless you’re shooting pictures for the Web, that feature isn’t useful to me.

Both camcorders had a few other weaknesses: You can’t plug an external mic into them, and while you can dump video from the camera into the computer via a firewire port, you can’t dump edited video from the computer back to the camera. Those are higher-end features. Neither of those matter much to me either. When I’m doing really serious work that requires those, I’ll be borrowing my church’s professional-grade JVC camera, which does everything but autofocus and make coffee. For projects where I record the audio separately (which is common), this camera will be fine. And as a second camera, it’ll be great.

So I bought it.

I’m amazed at how much video recording and editing power you can buy for $2,000 these days. For 2 grand, you can get a Pinnacle DV500 editing board (with Adobe Premiere bundled) and a low-end digital camcorder and still have plenty left over to buy a computer to connect it all to.

Happy New Year!

The way the ‘Net oughta be. I finally broke down and bought a VCR yesterday. It’s hard to do video work without one, and you want to give people drafts on VHS. When it comes to consumer video, there are two companies I trust: Hitachi and Hitachi. So I went looking for a Hitachi VCR. Their low-end model, a no-frills stereo 4-head model, ran $70 at Circuit City. I ordered it online, along with 5 tapes. Total cost: 80 bucks. For “delivery,” you’ve got two options: delivery, or local pickup. I did local pickup at the store five miles from where I live. You avoid the extended warranty pitch and trying to convince someone in the store to help you, and you just walk into the store, hand the paperwork to customer service, sign for it, then go pick it up. Suddenly consumer electronics shopping is like Chinese or pizza take-out. I love it.
The VCR’s not much to look at and the $149 models are more rugged-looking and have more metal in them, but this model is made in Korea so it ought to be OK, and the playback’s great on my 17-year-old Commodore 1702 (relabeled JVC) composite monitor. For what I’ll be asking it to do, it’s fine. In my stash of Amiga cables I found an RCA y-adapter that mixes two audio outputs, which I used to connect to the monitor’s mono input.

Desktop Linux. Here are my current recommendations for people trying to replace Windows with Linux.

Web browser: Galeon. Very lightweight. Fabulous tabbed interface. I hate browsing in Windows now.
Minimalist browser: Dillo. Well under a meg in size, and if it’ll render a site, it’ll render it faster than anything else you’ll find.
FTP client: GFTP. Graphical FTP client, saves hosts and username/password combinations for you.
PDF viewer: XPDF. Smaller and faster than Acrobat Reader, though that’s available for Linux too.
Mail client/PIM: Evolution. What Outlook should have been.
Lightweight mail client: Sylpheed. Super-fast and small, reasonably featured.
File manager: Nautilus. Gorgeous and easy to use, though slow on old PCs. Since I use the command line 90% of the time, it’s fine.
Graphics viewer: GTK-See. A convincing clone of ACDSee. Easy-to-use graphics viewer with a great interface.
News reader: Pan. Automatically threads subject headers for you, and it’ll automatically decode and display uuencoded picture attachments as part of the body. Invaluable for browsing the graphics newsgroups.
File compression/decompression: I use the command-line tools. If you want something like WinZip, there’s a program out there called LnxZip. It’s available in RPM or source form; I couldn’t find a Debian package for it.
Desktop publishing: Yes, desktop publishing on Linux! Scribus isn’t as powerful as QuarkXPress, but it gives a powerful enough subset of what QuarkXPress 3.x offered that I think I would be able to duplicate everything I did in my magazine design class way back when, in 1996. It’s more than powerful enough already to serve a small business’ DTP needs. Keep a close eye on this one. I’ll be using it to meet my professional DTP needs at work, because I’m already convinced I can do more with it than with Microsoft Publisher, and more quickly.
Window manager: IceWM. Fast, lightweight, integrates nicely with GNOME, Windows-like interface.
Office suite: Tough call. KOffice is absolutely good enough for casual use. StarOffice 6/OpenOffice looks to be good enough for professional use when released next year. WordPerfect Office 2000 is more than adequate for professional use if you’re looking for a commercial package.

More on video editing

Last night I found myself watching some old documentaries my Dad had on VHS (mostly episodes of old Discovery channel series, circa 1990), as much to watch how they used footage from varying sources and how they handled voiceovers as for the information they were presenting–although the subject matter was something I find interesting. It’s much easier to deal with poor quality old footage today than it was then–what I’d try to do is digitize it into Premiere, then export it to a Photoshop filmstrip, then export that into PhotoDeluxe and use its automatic cleanup, then take it back into Photoshop and then back to Premiere. The result wouldn’t be perfect but in five minutes you could have a film clip that looks a lot better.
I’m not sure I can ever watch TV for enjoyment ever again–I find myself analyzing it, trying to figure out how I’d do something comparable, or better. Then again, aside from baseball games, I haven’t watched TV for enjoyment with any regularity since 1992 when Quantum Leap went off the air, so I don’t think my new hobby changes anything.

My next video project is a documentary. I won’t be spending much time behind the camera; I’m putting my journalist hat back on and doing the interviews. I don’t know yet if I’ll be the one assembling and arranging the clips. The challenges here are really different from my music video projects, but I don’t see it as being very different from my old magazine projects in college. The biggest difference is that now I can add audio to help tell the story, and the pictures can move. But it’s still a matter of gathering the story, then gathering elements that help tell the story.

This is a big change for me though. In Journalism 105–the second journalism class I ever took–they exposed us to the basics of all the major forms of journalism: newspaper, magazine, advertising, radio, and television. I learned how to write a basic, straight news story in high school, so newspaper writing was easy. Magazine writing appealed to me a bit more because you could get more creative. Radio was a nice challenge, because you had very limited space to tell the story since it would be read aloud. Advertising was the most different unit but I didn’t struggle with it too much, at least not in that class. The only unit I disliked was the TV unit, because I didn’t like storyboarding. I think I know what changed though. When I learned TV writing, we were still in the linear era. Non-linear editing systems existed, but they weren’t widespread, so that wasn’t what they taught us.

Fast-forward six years. A couple of media professionals in St. Louis taught me how to use Apple’s Final Cut Pro. I was competent in an afternoon. To me, it looked almost like desktop publishing software, the biggest difference being that final output was playback, rather than a printed page. Suddenly TV made sense, and I caught myself thinking I’d like to go back to journalism school and get a broadcast degree. Sanity quickly returned.

Video resources online. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. The biggest obstacle to learning video editing is a lack of footage to work with. Sure, if you’ve got a DVD-ROM drive, you can rip video from DVD and use it, but then you can’t legally use the result for anything unless you go get the appropriate permissions. You want to get permissions before you start on a project, but you don’t want to wait around for permission before you start getting your hands dirty. The answer is to mess around with some public domain video. Then you can do anything you want.

The lowdown: Anything produced in the United States before 1922 is now public domain. This includes video, photos, and music–although a specific recording can be protected by separate copyright. As a general rule, it’ll be 2067 before you see widespread public domain music recordings. Anything produced by the U.S. Government, whether in 1776 or five minutes ago, is public domain. And a large number of works produced since 1922 have fallen into the public domain for one reason or another–the most noteworthy example being the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve ever wondered why 800 of your 922 cable channels, seemingly including ESPN, C-SPAN and the Cartoon Network, are showing that movie at any given moment in December, that’s why–any TV station can play that movie without paying anyone a dime.

Public domain video or stills can also be useful if you’re in the middle of a project and need to illustrate a point and none of your sources (whether your own video or other video you’ve obtained permission to use) illustrate it adequately.

Finding public domain stuff is a little harder. So here’s a core dump of all the resources I’ve found in the last couple of days:

http://www.pdinfo.com — public domain music
Links page from above, includes other media
The Internet Archive’s Movie Collection, over 950 downloadable PD movies, mostly short informational or promotional pieces.
Rick Prelinger’s journal, related to the above collection.
Kino International, a distributor of old movies on VHS and DVD, some of which is in the public domain.
Retrofilm.com, a distibutor of public domain material on professional-grade media such as miniDV–they don’t sell material on VHS or DVD. Their catalog is surprisingly large and recent, including a 1980 made-for-TV movie about Jonestown that I remember seeing at least twice.
Tips for handling files from The Internet Archive Collection on various platforms
The Public Domain: How to find and use copyright-free writings, music, art and more, a 300-page book on the subject.

Tools. There’s a non-linear editing project for Linux called Broadcast 2000 that got rave reviews, but unfortunately, DMCA-related litigation caused development of the program to be halted (presumably because of fear of lawsuits, either due to liability or due to people possibly using the program to violate the DMCA) and the developer no longer offers it for download. I did find the source code on Tucows, and recent versions of SuSE and Mandrake are supposed to have it. Since the program was GPL, you can still legally download it and do whatever you want with it. GIMP was abandoned by its original authors early in its development cycle and subsequently picked up by others, so maybe Broadcast 2000 still has a future.

I found some Broadcast 2000 tips here.

Regardless of what tools you use for editing, be sure to get Virtual Dub–do a search on Google. You can use it to crop your video clips and convert between formats. I’ve had good results using the Indeo 5.1 codec at a high quality setting. Slice the video you want to use into the segments you want, leaving yourself a few frames on either side just in case you need to stretch the sequence out or decide you want to use transitions.

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