New cameras put professional touches in hands of the masses


Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By Doug Bedell / The Dallas Morning News

Bart Weiss remembers the opening salvo of the Digital Video Revolution.

It was in May 1997, and he'd just gotten his hands on the Sony VX1000 – the first high-end consumer video camera using MiniDV, a tape format that promised to churn out broadcast-quality footage at a fraction of the cost.

He scrambled home to try it out, dragging along an acquaintance, a television cameraman.

"I put that VX1000 next to his professional Betacam's picture and watched his face just fall," says Mr. Weiss, a 20-year filmmaking instructor.

"For him, it was just too close for comfort."

That night, the implications were as clear as the digital images that lighted up Mr. Weiss' home.

"Suddenly, we were getting professional-grade quality in this consumer-grade equipment," says Mr. Weiss.

"We knew it would change the landscape completely."

And it has.

Today, the momentum from that seminal product continues to propel high-end video into the hands of the masses. Coupled with the development of FireWire, the ultra-fast connection that allows pure digital transfer of video onto computer hard drives, new-generation digital camcorders are transforming filmmaking on all levels. Falling prices have created a whole new market for editing software, hardware, computers, audio equipment and optics.

In the three years since Sony's product wowed Mr. Weiss, $4,000 camcorders such as the VX1000 have dropped to half the price of the first generation. Camcorder sales passed 2 million in May, up 14 percent over the same period last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Meanwhile, amateur filmmakers like those who produced The Blair Witch Project have begun competing with major studios. The Internet has blossomed as an independent staging ground. Home camcorder work in disasters often supplements television reports. And novice owners of sub-$2,000 desktop computers are deftly handling chores once relegated to pricey film- and video-editing houses.

"If you have been dreaming about producing your own blockbuster movie or maybe a television pilot about voyages in outer space ... there has never been a better time than the present to start," says Larry Johnson, a longtime Hollywood filmmaker and host of the Digital Video Solutions Web site (www.digitalvideosolutions.com).

MiniDV

In the parlance of the tech world, the new generation of digital film equipment is designed for the "prosumer," the consumer who thinks of himself as a semi-professional but who still requires simple features, such as auto-iris and power zoom.

As a result, professional features such as manual color balance adjustment are missing in even the most pretentious MiniDV camcorders. Canon's GL-1 and the VX2000, Sony's newest version of its trailblazer, can frustrate perfectionists with their persistent tendency to change focus or auto-correct exposures based on happenstance.

"If this is unacceptable to you, you're bound to dislike MiniDV equipment, even though you can get absolutely fantastic picture quality out of it," says David H. Dennis, a Los Angeles digital video expert who runs the www.amazing.com Web site.

Despite recent price reductions, entry into the digital camcorder world is still beyond many Americans' budgets. Even older VX1000s, if you can find them, still command about $2,000. "Some folks will still prefer its size and picture quality," says Mr. Weiss.

New feature-rich models such as Canon's XL-1 can run as high as $3,500. And, if you want to restore a full, all-manual feel to the XL-1, tack on another $1,700 for a Fuji lens.

"It has more bragging power than actual advantage," says Mr. Weiss.

Camera-toting vacationers should beware of another drawback. MiniDV cassettes, which cost $14 to $20, can be hard to find in a pinch, although more electronics stores carry them.

"If you go on vacation to exotic climes and want to get some pictures, you're likely to find it quite difficult to get MiniDV tapes," Mr. Dennis says.

Another consideration: For all the expense, the priciest camcorders don't have analog inputs. That means you can't use them to copy VHS tapes you have stuck away in your library. And because video has a fixed resolution of 720 X 380, it is undesirable if you want to make traditional prints.

But the MiniDV advantages are hard to ignore. With a little work, just about anyone can produce near-professional-quality footage. Repeated copying of footage doesn't degrade the quality, as in other formats. MiniDV camcorders are ideal for shooting both stills and motion videos for display on the World Wide Web.

"What we're finding is that dentists and doctors and Little League teams – all kinds of people who would never have gotten into videotapes – are really starting to get into this," says Mr. Weiss.

In essence, the arrival of the high-end digital camcorder is producing the same sort of changes that powerful desktop computers brought to publishing several years ago.

"It's made an incredible difference," Mr. Weiss says.

Other digital formats offer slightly more affordable alternatives. Sony is pushing the Digital 8 format in a line of smaller, palm-top camcorders that start at about $900. Experts generally agree that Digital 8 is better than 8 mm/VHS but far inferior to MiniDV.

Too often with this line of cameras, users can miss great shots because they have to fumble for tiny buttons, Mr. Weiss says. The action often leads to the ultimate home movie killer – jiggling camera syndrome.

"If you want a consumer-quality digital camera at a low price, this is going to be a hard-to-beat proposition," Mr. Dennis says. "If you want ultimate quality, stick with MiniDV."

FireWire

When the VX1000 first came out, the tiny ports on its base puzzled many aficionados. They were labeled i.Link, Sony's version of a nascent technology that is proving as important to the Digital Video Revolution as the digital camcorder.

Also known as FireWire and IEEE 1394, its scientific name, the connection was designed around a new cabling concept that allows superfast digital data transfers.

FireWire is the name of Apple Computer's version of this developing standard. And there's a good reason it has become the most commonly used name for this technology. About the same time as the MiniDV camcorders were being rolled out, Apple began installing FireWire ports in its midlevel and high-end computers.

And the nexus of digital video camcorder and computer had begun.

FireWire, says Mr. Weiss, represents the final step to putting professional-quality productions into the hands of home users.

By last year, computer processor speeds had reached 400 MHz in the most basic, sub-$1,000 desktop systems. That is plenty of power to mimic a television studio's digital video editing equipment.

Meanwhile, spurred by a worldwide glut of inexpensive parts, home desktop systems began to ship with hard disk drives of 10 gigabytes and more. That was plenty of space to store and edit bursts of home video – if you could get it into the computer.

FireWire provided that crucial link with fast, digital-to-digital transfers of video directly from the new camcorders onto hard drives.

"Now," says Mr. Weiss, "for a relatively small amount of money, you can own the whole production package."

For those without FireWire-equipped Macs, manufacturers began turning out PC video capture boards, such as the Radius MotoDV, DPS Spark and Pinnacle Systems DV200, which add the connection capability.

FireWire's advantages were immediately apparent for videophiles. The IEEE 1394 interface sends the audio and video signals through one cable, as opposed to the old-fashioned analog method that requires three cables, either an S-Video or composite video cable and two RCA audio cables.

With nondigital camcorders, the analog video can easily distort when tape stretches or recording heads malfunction. What you see in the viewfinder is not, therefore, what you get.

"This kind of damage is cumulative – the more you use the tape and the more times the tape is copied, the worse things look," says Mr. Dennis. "In digital recordings, ... the image coming off your tape will be perfect unless the tape is severely damaged. And you can record it into as many tapes as you want with the same perfect copy in each one."

Capture and editing

On the PC side, a dizzying array of video capture equipment is available at a wide range of prices. Some $100 capture cards are analog-only, which will be useless to anyone sinking $2,000 into a digital video camcorder. Others offer FireWire ports that can cost $500 or more but can be extremely unreliable.

Reading consumer testimonials in newsgroups such as rec.video.desktop and rec.video.production can help avoid incompatibilities.

PC users bent on high-quality video work should make sure their processor speeds and system configurations jibe with the requirements of any capture card they're considering, experts say.

On any computer, most home digital movie editing is "nonlinear," a technological term meaning you can grab scenes and snippets from the camera's footage as they enter your computer. Scene order, transitions and special effects can then be added using video-editing software.

Nonlinear editing is precise, a distinct advantage over the old linear method, which requires the user to constantly shuttle tapes forward and backward at varying speeds to find and mark points for editing.

Mr. Johnson, once videographer for big-name musical acts such as The Rolling Stones, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, recommends installing a second hard drive dedicated to video storage and manipulation.

"It is important to keep your operating system separated from your video files because the operating system is constantly accessing files from that drive," Mr. Johnson says.

"Video capture requires a certain sustained data rate. Otherwise, you get a video file with dropped frames and a soundtrack that seems to skip like an old phonograph record."

Once captured, the home movie must be edited using specialized software. In the PC world, capture cards usually come with an editing suite. You can buy separate software suites, such as the popular MGI Video Wave, for under $100. Full-featured packages such as Adobe Premier soar above $500 but provide more options for transitions and professional effects.

For overall dependability for the digital video newcomer, the best solution is probably to purchase a new Apple computer – especially if a FireWire-equipped camcorder is involved. The iMac models, from $999, are especially well-designed for FireWire-equipped camcorders, says Mr. Weiss. The FireWire connection is built in and supported by the manufacturer. And Apple's Final Cut Pro ($999) and iMovie2 ($49) software are built specifically for Apple processors and hardware.

"There are so many boards and so much different equipment out there, it gets tricky," says Mr. Weiss. "There always seem to be problems with customer support for Pinnacle or other systems. The problem is the computer drivers for all the systems don't mesh.

"At least Apple has the drivers you need and the software that works with them."

What's possible

A host of improved video storage devices is on the horizon. One, the DVD-RAM drive, can hold 4.7GB of video, enough space to store a two-hour movie in nondegrading digital format, then overwrite it up to 100,000 times without loss of quality.

Some camera makers are equipping their newest models with CD burners that extend consumers' digital video recording options.

Specialized, FireWire-equipped notebook computers are hitting the market with the capability to turn digital footage into masterpieces. The notebook serves as both editor and portable storage device.

Recently, notebook add-on packages have gotten downright cheap. One of the latest, the $99 Dazzle DV-Editor for Notebook Computers (www.dazzle.com) comes with a CardBus PC card (PCMCIA) for FireWire video capture and an editing software suite.

Although there is undoubtedly more bad work than good being produced by consumers with this equipment today, home productions are bound to improve.

With simplified editing, FireWire connections and the right computer base station, consumers have never been in a better position to provide their families with glimpses into real-life sights and sound.

Dissemination of that broadcast-quality video can now be viewed worldwide over the Internet.

"I think home movies are a very important part of our cultural heritage," says Mr. Weiss.

"Home movies show us who we are as a people. They show us all the subtleties about the way we treat each other, the way we treat the things around us, the way we value objects, subjects and people in a way Hollywood never can."

The new digital age is handing this generation the tools to create a richer, more compelling record than any before it, says Mr. Weiss.

"Since the '70s, there have been these promises and opportunities, but they've never gone forward," Mr. Weiss says. "Now we're on the way."