Hollywood in your home

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

Amateur film buff Mary Trussell aims her camcorder at turtles in the backyard fish pond. "I have absolutely no talent with a camera, I can tell you that," she says.

Fellow Dallas resident John Walker shoots professional documentaries in exotic locales such as Uganda. Cinema is his life.

Until this year, Mrs. Trussell and Mr. Walker considered it impractical to edit their video creations on a home computer. Like most of the half-million people who have bought digital movie cameras, they have left production work to specialists – if it was done at all.

But recent advancements in desktop editing software have changed the lives of both amateur and professional. Suddenly, Mrs. Trussell has found herself zipping home videos across the Internet to a son in Japan. Mr. Walker, meanwhile, has shaved thousands of dollars from his production costs and opened new vistas for his career.

"I'm not a tech-head, and I'm still on a learning curve," says Mr. Walker. "But this stuff is so slick and easy, it just blows me away."

More and more Americans are finding exhilaration in the simplicity of modern home computer filmmaking. According to the NPD Intellect research group, 1999 digital camcorder sales topped $532 million, a significant leap from 1998's $93.2 million.

At least 524,000 digital camcorders were sold last year. And this year, all camcorder sales – both digital and analog – have already topped 2 million, up 14 percent over the same period in 1999, according to eBrain Market Research, a service of the Consumer Electronics Association.

Meanwhile, computer makers such as Sony and Dell are using video-editing software as lures for new computer buyers. Microsoft is packaging basic video-editing software into its Windows Me operating system, to be released in September. Apple is expanding its already dominant graphics packages to include newly designed filmmaking tools. And Web sites for sharing homemade digital movies are springing up as fast as other dot.coms flop.

"Now customers can unleash all kinds of creativity to mix effects, add narration and music to relive special moments with family," says Lory Pilchik, Dell's director of consumer marketing. "It's empowering – and something we believe our customers are going to embrace and thoroughly enjoy."

Adds Mr. Walker: "What's exciting is children and people who have never picked up a camera before are getting into this. And that's pretty cool. It's going to encourage more and more. This technology will create new artists."

Expansion of consumer software options and rapid reduction in the cost of equipment are combining to push even the most basic users into a new avocation. For as little as $3,000, consumers can own the same sort of tools that helped a group of young filmmakers create the astoundingly successful Blair Witch Project.

But for less than $200, beginners such as Mrs. Trussell can purchase most of the newest editing software suites aimed at them. At the most basic level, Microsoft's Windows Me will include Movie Maker as part of the under-$60 operating system upgrade.

And Apple's updated iMovie 2 ($49), which is standard issue in its latest lineup of desktop iMac DV models, produces professional-quality videos with an impressive array of simplified editing options.

To demonstrate its ease, Apple's leader, Steve Jobs, recently took the stage at Macworld Expo 2000 in New York City and stitched together a series of small clips showing the summer beach activities of his children. Within five minutes, Mr. Jobs had produced an impressive product that included theme music, voice-over, slow motion, titles, freeze frames and even reversed footage.

One of the chief problems overcome by these basic packages is the massive storage needed for video processed on the home computer. The Apple and Microsoft products use compression technology to winnow down the amount of required hard disk space.

Apple products can output video in QuickTime format; Microsoft's Movie Maker presses clips into its Windows Media Player format. At their lowest-quality settings, these programs allow users to pack 20 hours of video onto 1 gigabyte of disk space.

For those such as Mrs. Trussell, who is testing Movie Maker and other Windows Me features as a volunteer for Microsoft, these features overcome huge obstacles.

"In some other programs, you take three minutes of digital video and you've filled up 21/2 gigabytes," she says. "When you run the same file through something like Movie Maker, it cuts it down by about 10 to 1. On one of my first tries, I was able to send about 35 seconds of stuff to my son in Japan over the Internet via e-mail.

"It was just fun, and it started me doing more and more."

Mr. Jobs and Apple, which has long specialized in products for both low- and high-end video production, recently announced a system to make it even simpler to share home cinematic creations.

Apple's iDisk offers Internet-based storage that's available 24 hours a day. Everyone who signs up for Apple's iTools automatically gets 20 megabytes of free online storage. Additionally, iDisk (www.apple.com) offers up to 400MB of storage on an annual subscription basis.

What you need

Digital video camcorders are taking the lead with newly affordable models such as Canon's ZR digital unit, which sells for about $900. But older analog camcorders will work just fine with desktop video-editing software.

It's best to use a recent camera that offers S-Video, a feature that provides better picture and sound quality and makes cameras easier to attach to your computer. Windows users who choose the digital route will need to invest in a FireWire capture card for digital-to-digital video data transfer. But FireWire cards, experts warn, can be difficult to get working properly on PCs.

Most new Macintosh machines are a step ahead, offering standard FireWire connections for fast, facile direct camcorder connections. Sony calls the same connection i.Link, and other manufacturers use the technical designation IEEE 1394.

For PCs without FireWire, users will need a video capture card to move video from the camcorder to the PC. In the case of analog camcorders such as the Sony Handicam, the capture card turns analog video signals into digital information that computers can interpret. Capture cards made by ATI, Matrox and other companies can add a variety of functions, including television viewing, to the most basic home computers for below $300. But inexpensive capture cards can also be purchased for about $50.

The computer used to edit video should contain at least a Pentium II-grade processor and 64MB of RAM, experts say. A minimum of 10GB in hard drive storage is advisable but not necessary for low-end productions. Mrs. Trussell, for example, has done all her work on a machine with a 9GB drive.

Editing for novices

With a little more money, users can buy the ability to produce professional-quality effects.

For PC users, the most popular editing suites today cost $199 or less and include an IEEE 1394 card for hooking up the camcorder. Digital Origin IntroDV, Pinnacle Systems' Studio DV, MGI VideoWave 3.5 software, Ulead Systems VideoStudio 4.0 and Canopus EZDV offer the ability to create high-end effects such as dissolves and chroma-key, the technique used by television stations to superimpose one moving image on another.

At the high end, Mr. Walker and other professionals prefer Final Cut Pro for Apple and Adobe Premier, which can cost $1,000 or more.

MGI VideoWave ($90) comes with many camcorders and video capture cards sold these days at electronics stores. Its mechanism provides more freedom than do basic programs such as iMovie and Movie Maker, allowing outputting in multiple formats that provide higher quality.

When using videotape or an analog camcorder input, users simply attach their units to the capture card S-video jack, start up the editing program, press the capture button and begin feeding video to the hard disk. Stop the recording and you're ready to edit. Novice-level packages such as VideoWave generally limit sessions to one minute of input from the camcorder.

Using digital-to-digital transport via FireWire connections cuts down on loss of quality and compression of the final hard drive product. The difficulty in managing video editing on home computers stems from the incredibly fast transfer rate of data from the camcorder to hard disk.

Video pours onto the hard disk at about 3.6MB per second. At that rate, home users will fill 14GB with the 60 minutes of film stored on a single digital videocassette.

"That was the problem I had with VideoWave – it still leaves you with this huge file that you can't do anything with," says Mrs. Trussell. "The quality with Movie Maker is not as good, of course, as an AVI file or some other format. But when you squeeze down something as much as that, you expect to give up something."

As the data stream into the home computer, users can mark rough cuts and points where they might add fade-ins, swirls, ripples, titles, audio and other effects.

Most novices become so entranced with these magical abilities that their first productions become a gimmicky, nauseating tour d' force. Experts recommend using short bursts of video and sparing use of effects.

Pinnacle Systems' Studio 400 (www.pinnaclesys.com) is among editors that simplify the cutting and pasting of scenes by "watching" for a large number of changed pixels in adjacent frames. The editor marks those changes for the user, indicating a change in scenes – or that the photographer has jerked the camera around too fast.

As the final step, home computer users then write the results back out to digital videotape or standard VHS. Final products also can be outputted in computer-based formats including AVI and MPEG-1, trading off image quality for smaller disk requirements.

Editing with these novice tools isn't quick. In general, the process takes about two hours for each hour of tape. More ambitious projects – true home masterpieces – may require 10 hours or more.

For professionals such as Mr. Walker – who jumped into the digital realm for the first time this year with the purchase of Final Cut Pro software and a Macintosh G4 – the arrival of desktop editing is nothing short of a miracle.

"To me, these are just black boxes," he says. "I know nothing about them, really. In fact, if they had one that was voice-activated, I'd probably buy it. But two years ago, I would have spent $5,000 to $6,000 at an edit facility just to do a low-budget video.

"Now, I can get off the plane, come home and be working on the video the next day by myself – and it's broadcast quality. This stuff amazes me."

Bright digital future

Apple, Microsoft and other companies are clearly placing strong bets on desktop video editing. They're banking on America's fascination with video- and television-quality productions to boost sales.

The potential is obviously huge. A recent estimate by Matrox Graphics, for example, showed that 43 million households in the United States own both a computer and camcorder.

Experts predict that it will become even more attractive as standard hard disks swell to 100GB capacities from their current average of 10GB. DVD recorders are also dropping in cost for home users, providing another source for industry optimism. Eventually, DVD's MPEG-2 format will become standard on home computers, bringing high-quality storage options to the masses, experts predict.

Then, they say, camcorder users will possess all the tools of Hollywood at their instant disposal.

"Cinema has always been, hands down, the most wonderful art form that America ever created," says Mr. Walker.

"It was an American invention, essentially, but it has always been one of the most technically difficult things to do.

"We're watching all that change instantly."