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Desktop Hollywood

So you want to be a big-time movie director? Computer editing advances create auteurs from home video buffs
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

Video editing is the most exciting thing you're not doing with your computer. Think about it -- you can dust off that drawerful of tapes from birthday parties, graduations and vacation trips over the years and turn them into movies that won't make you flinch when you watch them. My father visited the other day, and I showed him videos I'd created from footage shot on a trip to Paris. The man sat still and watched intently, without fidgeting, without even a drink in his hand as a boredom chaser. What's more, he asked to see one of the videos again -- and this was a film without even a fleeting glimpse of his cherished grandchildren on-screen.

Frankly, I never would have inflicted the original, unedited tape on my dad or anyone else. Some sections go on way too long, others are too dark and herky-jerky, and that five-minute segment of jiggling pavement shot when I forgot to turn the camera off while carrying it around town is not a great crowd pleaser. Without editing, dreck. With editing, trés bien.

You can handle the technical requirements of creating a computer video editing setup -- honest. You may have everything you need already in hand, you may need to add some equipment to your arsenal, but you don't need a degree in computer science to make this happen. Before we get to the nuts and bolts of making this work, though, let's consider what you can achieve with a little time and a few mouse clicks:

Throw out the trash. The single most important task (and the easiest to achieve, at least from a software perspective) is cutting the boring segments out of your videos, leaving only the bits that people actually want to see. In truth, you'll find that the more video editing experience you have under your belt, the more ruthless you become, trimming away a lot more than you keep in pursuit of short, entertaining results. Happily, your video editing efforts never destroy the original tapes, unlike the old days when fumble-fingered folks tried to cut and splice original 8mm home movies. Experiment all you want, slice and dice at will -- you can always go back.

Change the order. There's nothing wrong with chronological order -- couldn't get through the day without it -- but it's not always the best way to organize a video. Once you have your clips stored on the computer, it's an easy matter to pull together all your museum-hopping vacation excursions into a sequence or segregate your wife's family from your own in a wedding video or piece together all the clutch plays from a Little League game into an entertaining all-star reel.

Create professional-looking transitions. The original footage you shoot with a camcorder jumps abruptly from scene to scene, but on the computer you can smooth out the progression with elegant fade-ins and fade-outs or shake things up with ostentatious swirling visual effects that would be right at home in the old Batman TV series.

Add music. Nothing adds atmosphere to a video like a little background music. For my Paris videos, I went for a touch of class with Gershwin's An American in Paris and a smattering of Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. For video of my wife's family hitting the buffet table at a recent anniversary party, it was the theme from Jaws. Whatever brave or foolhardy inspiration strikes you, creating a soundtrack from your CD collection, or even music you've downloaded from the Web, is a straightforward undertaking.

Add titles. Yes, we're talking ego-massage here, with your name plastered on screen as producer/director/editor/whatever. But that's not the sum total of text-worthy tinkering for your video projects. For example, you can identify the places you've visited right on-screen, either superimposing text over the moving image or creating separate title cards. Or go for giggles by spicing up the goo-goo-gaga footage of your adorable daughter babbling away by creating subtitles that "translate" what she's saying.

Include still photos. A powerful tool that's included in most video editing software, but is so often ignored by amateur videographers, is the ability to incorporate still images into your video projects. There's a reason professional wedding videos have made this a time-honored cliché -- people love the then-and-now contrast you get when you lead up to a current event with stills from the past. With some video editing software you can emulate the effect used liberally by Ken Burns in his award-winning PBS documentaries ( The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball), panning across a still image instead of simply filling the screen with it. And speaking of PBS documentaries….

Add a voiceover. You do it already when you're sitting in the room showing off your video footage, explaining what's on-screen to the assembled audience. Now, with video editing you can build in a voiceover track, polishing all those stories you like to tell until they positively glow with rapier wit, then making them a permanent part of the presentation. Another audio possibility: add sound effects to your production.

Use special effects. Depending on the editing software you choose, you may have a variety of special effects at your disposal, everything from slowing or speeding up the footage to turning it into old- fashioned sepia to creating mosaic or fish-eye effects. Of course, as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker in the movie Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility." Most gee-whiz special effects only really look right in MTV wanna-be videos or Star Wars parodies. Still, hidden between the turn-everything-upside-down effect and the psychedelic colorizer, you may find some genuinely useful options, including the opportunity to lighten or darken video sequences taken under poor lighting conditions.

Share the results. Once you have edited video on your computer, you can save it back to tape and show it on your TV, but that's just one of your options. Save your production in a compact video file format and you can attach it to an e-mail and send it to friends or relatives to watch on their own computers, or post it on the family Web site for all to see. If your computer has a CD recorder ( more and more common today), you can save your creation as a video CD, which will not only play back in a computer CD-ROM drive, but in most DVD players, too, with less than perfect but still very respectable video quality and excellent sound. And if you've splurged for a computer with a DVD recordable drive installed ( pioneered by Apple with its SuperDrive and increasingly popular on high-end Windows PCs), you can really show off by creating professional-looking DVDs, with menus just like commercial film discs leading to your own movies boasting crystalline video and audio quality.

What You Need: Equipment

Two key technological concepts are all you need to understand about video editing equipment -- after that, it's all the usual computer nuts and bolts.

Camcorders come in two basic flavors: analog and digital. The analog group includes 8mm, Hi-8 and VHS-C models. The digital: MiniDV and Digital8. Digital camcorders have several advantages over the older, analog formats. They take crisper, higher-resolution video. The MiniDV models are also smaller and lighter than analog camcorders. From an editing point of view, though, the key advantage is that they store video and audio digitally, in the form of bits and bytes that can be pumped directly into your computer. If you're using an analog camcorder, the signal has to be converted into a digital format before you can use it on your computer, which means extra hassle, extra equipment and a loss of quality.

Does that mean you have to own a digital camcorder to edit your video on the computer? No, not really. If all you want to do is edit your video for viewing on the computer, devices such as the Linx USB Video Input Cable from Pinnacle, available for under $50, connect to your computer's USB port and let you capture analog audio and video on your PC. But the results aren't going to look great when viewed full-screen or saved back to videotape. Higher-quality solutions for capturing analog video are available, at significantly higher prices. For instance, you could swap your computer video card for one that accepts video input, such as the All-in-Wonder Radeon 8500DV from ATI, which sells for around $199. Or Apple recommends the Studio video converter from Formac, which sells for a cool $399. But I'm going to recommend a simpler, more straightforward solution for analog camcorder owners: take the plunge and upgrade to a digital camcorder. Prices for very respectable basic digital camcorders, such as Canon's ZR-40 model, are down in the $550 to $650 range today. You get all the digital video advantages mentioned above, a much simpler editing experience and, what's more, you can use the new camcorder to convert your old analog videos into digital format. When shopping for a digital camcorder, make sure it accepts analog input ( most models today do). At that point you plug the old camcorder output into the new digital camcorder and just retape your old video -- couldn't be simpler.

Let's assume we're all on the same digital page now. The second tech concept involves a feature you need on your computer -- a digital connector that communicates with your camera. Fortunately, there's an industry standard for this connector, so you don't have to worry about which computer goes with which camcorder. While the connector is standard, the name for it varies: it's called FireWire on Apple computers, Sony calls it iLink, and the rest of the world calls it IEEE 1394. It's all the same thing -- only the names have been changed to confuse the innocent.

The computer you own may already have a FireWire connection -- more and more desktop and laptop computers do, including all the Macintosh models. If not, you can install an expansion card with a FireWire connector inside a desktop PC, or add a PCMCIA card adapter to your laptop -- either one will cost under $100.

That's it for the tough stuff. Now it's just a matter of computing power. The simple truth is, if you bought your computer within the past year or two, it should be up to the video editing task when it comes to pure processing power. You will need lots of hard disk space -- an hour of digital video takes up a whopping 13 gigabytes on your hard drive. When I started with digital video editing, that was a horrendous burden. Today, though, when it's hard to find a computer shipping with less than a 20-gigabyte hard drive, you should have plenty of room. And while a system tweaked for video editing ideally will have two hard drives -- one for your programs, one just for storing video -- in the real world a single drive will work just fine. If you find your system is short on disk space, you can usually have an additional drive installed professionally or you can buy an external drive that connects via the FireWire port or a USB 2.0 port, if your system has one. I've used the 80-gigabyte 3000DV FireWire drive and the 120-gigabyte 3000LE USB 2.0 external drives from Maxtor extensively in my video editing projects. I can save to them directly or use them to keep backup copies of my project files and, equally important, can easily carry entire projects from computer to computer.

Beyond that, a faster computer is going to make video editing easier because it will handle certain processing-intensive tasks quicker. For example, when you add lettering over a video scene, the program has to put them together into a single image, a process called rendering, before you can see the result on-screen. With a fast Pentium 4 processor, you'll hardly notice the time it takes for image massaging. With a PC running a lower-end Celeron processor, you're going to spend a minute or two drumming your fingers periodically after making changes. On the other hand, the end result you create will be exactly the same.

Finally, there's the option to burn your movies onto DVD disks. This is the cutting edge of home-video editing, and sure to knock the socks off your less technologically advanced friends and neighbors. The major PC manufacturers, notably Dell and Gateway, offer DVD-
burning drives as an option on their build-to-order systems for about $400, and Macintosh buyers pay even less to step up to a system equipwith its DVD-burning SuperDrive versus a standard CD burner.

What You Need: Software

For getting your feet wet with video editing, you can use the software that comes with your computer.

Microsoft's Movie Maker is included with the Windows XP operating system. It does a nice job of transferring video from your digital camcorder into the computer, even creating separate files for individual scenes automatically. You can then drag a scene into a sequence, trim the beginning and end points, add a musical soundtrack if you like, and preview the result on-screen. You don't get precise control over the way the video and the audio interact, but it's fine for the basics, and a good introduction to video-editing concepts. One big gap: you can't create text titles within the program. But my major beef is that, while you can save your work in a wide variety of computer file formats, you can't send it back to the camcorder to tape it. This is a major flaw, and I can't for the life of me understand why Microsoft hasn't fixed it.

On the Macintosh, Apple provides its iMovie 2 software, which is far more capable than its Windows counterpart. You get simple editing controls, lots of nice between-scene transitions, animated titles and a variety of video special effects. Audio editing is still a bit tricky, and learning how to use the more advanced features is a chore due to the poorly organized product information provided. Still, with a little trial and error, you can create sophisticated video projects with iMovie, and it works hand in glove with the superb iDVD program to churn out slick DVD disks on a SuperDrive. What's more, both programs are provided free with your system, and you can't beat that.

Windows users shouldn't despair, though -- for less than $100 you'll find several excellent consumer video editing programs. One favorite is VideoWave 5 Power Edition from Roxio, which lets you create beautiful text titles, and sophisticated Hollywood-style transitions between scenes, and even allows you to speed up or slow down a sequence, all with surprising ease. If you plan to save your movies to DVD, VideoWave is especially appealing -- the new version boasts a powerful system for creating good-looking DVD menus and burning disks that will play on most home DVD players.

Another solid choice is VideoStudio 6 from Ulead, which provides a step-by-step approach to video editing, with an easy visual framework for structuring your movie and very precise controls for tweaking the video and audio components. You can pull off some fairly funky effects with the advanced tools, such as superimposing a figure on a separately shot background, but my primary reason for recommending VideoStudio is the easy-to-understand system for pulling off editing basics with a splash of style.

One more mid-range choice worth considering is Studio version 7 from Pinnacle Systems, especially if you're running a less than firebreathing Windows machine. Studio lets you store and work with video in a compact preview format, taking up much less disk space, then recapture full-resolution footage of only the sections you use in the final film. You also get a well-designed title creation utility and a clever music creation tool that builds custom soundtracks, in the style you choose, timed to exactly match your project's needs.

Finally, if you're getting serious about this stuff and want the kind of total control the pros demand, consider Adobe Premiere, available for both Windows and the Macintosh for about $550. Premiere is admittedly more difficult to learn than the mid-range programs, but you'll never outgrow its capabilities. Interestingly, one of the key features that differentiate a midrange video-editing program from the high-end choices is audio-editing sophistication, an area where Premiere shines. For instance, say I lay a music track under a party scene, but want to drop the music volume briefly so I can hear the toast being made. With the other programs mentioned, this would be a significant hurdle -- with Premiere I just click on the audio track, pull down to adjust the volume, then pick a spot after the toast is completed and pull it back up. Premiere is also an exceptional tool for handling major projects, with lots of individual video and audio clips; between the "bin" system for stowing component parts and a comprehensive search capability, I can quickly find one clip in a thousand.

That should get you well on your way to video editing success. The key point to remember when jumping in is that the fundamental step -- cutting clips out of raw video footage and putting them in order -- is very easy no matter which setup you choose. Let's face it, whatever you can do to keep the good stuff and eliminate the rest is going to be one huge improvement.

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