PC video editors spruce up your vacation tapes
August 14, 1998
by Dan Littman
(IDG) -- These days there's no excuse not to take a camcorder with you on vacation. The latest models are so small you can take one anywhere, and you can operate it with one hand, leaving the other hand free to grip an ice cream bar or hold on to someone who's paying attention to traffic.
At least, that's how I pictured things as I planned a recent trip to Brazil: framing a Copacabana sunset while my companion fended off peddlers and pickpockets; zooming in on monkeys overhead as she shooed away the snakes at shoulder level.
And that's pretty much how things turned out. Before we left, I picked up a $500 Sony HandyCam, flipped through the manual, and laid in a supply of Hi-8 cassettes. Three weeks later I returned home with a waist-high stack of tapes and no suntan on the right side of my face. Now, how would I show my friends what I saw down there? Videotape isn't like a set of snapshots -- you can't duplicate a few favorites and drop them in the mail. But with a PC, some video capture hardware, and some editing software, you can digitize your videotapes, edit out the dull parts, and add cool effects. I narrowed the field down to two hardware gizmos and three software products. Then I got down to some serious moviemaking.
Studio 400 -- Grade: A-
For my initial attempt at editing my vacation tapes, I tried Pinnacle Systems' Studio 400, a $199 camcorder-to-VCR gizmo about the size of a paperback. First I connected the Studio 400's purple mixer box to my camcorder, my VCR, and my PC's serial and parallel ports. This involved wiring and rewiring the devices together in several permutations, running configuration tests, and unearthing some dark secrets about how VCRs work.
I popped a tape in the camcorder, hit the Log button, and kicked back. The Studio 400 played through the video, separating it into individual scenes, which it saved as low-resolution digital clips on my hard disk. Since they're low-res, the clips don't take up much space (about 150MB for an hour of video), and I found it easy to rearrange them in the order I wanted, insert transitions (for instance, a fade or a wipe) between scenes, and add music and titles. Then the Studio 400 transferred the scenes directly from the high-quality original Hi-8 tape to a VHS tape in my VCR, inserting the computer-generated transitions and titles where I specified. Because my final production came straight from the source video, its quality was almost as good as the original's. I even had the option of saving my masterpiece to disk as an AVI file, suitable for posting on a Web site or burning onto a CD-ROM.
Though I found the software easy to use--in 5 minutes I was comfortable jumping from Capture to Edit to Make Movie, and flipping open the Toolbox when I needed to edit a title or interpose a transition--I was disappointed at the minimal control it gave me over fades, transitions, title animation, and the like. What I really wanted to do was play with special effects. After all, I'm not making a documentary on Brazilian social conditions; I'm trying to impress my friends with my cool vacation (and my technical prowess). So I decided to try digitizing my videos with a capture card.
All-in-Wonder Pro -- Grade: A-
I turned to ATI $322 All-in-Wonder Pro, a graphics card that offers video capture almost as an afterthought. It can drive a 1600-by-1200-resolution monitor in 16-bit color at 85 Hz, has a built-in television tuner with software for watching or transcribing closed-caption text, and accelerates 2D and 3D graphics.
I ran the video from the camcorder into the PC and then back out to my VCR. Rather than telling the camcorder which frames to retrieve and then sending them straight to the VCR (as the Studio 400 does), a video capture board saves captured video on your PC as a high-resolution digital file, giving you more flexibility in editing and adding effects. When you've finished editing it, the All-in-Wonder Pro spits the file back out to the recording VCR.
I soon discovered a drawback, however: The process of digitizing video creates enormous files. One second of video saved in ATI's "Good" mode fills up just about 1MB of disk space. In other words, an hour-long tape would have hogged almost 4GB of my hard disk.
VideoWave 1.5 -- Grade: B-
Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to software, I rate ease of use as the highest priority, and a cute interface a distant last. That's why I never felt at home with MGI's VideoWave 1.5, which is bundled with the ATI card (it also sells alone for $99). Though intended to seem user-friendly, VideoWave's cartoonish appearance made it harder to learn. Menus lurk behind a tiny button labeled Start; the storyboard runs in a single row across the top of the screen; and controls for overlaps and transitions are tucked away at the bottom.
Once I got past the surface, I discovered some impressive features. For example, I could fade-in a scene to slowly replace the previous one, and make titles coast onto the screen, hang around for a second or two, and then shrink off into a corner, as if disappearing into the distance. I could set a low frame rate and select any of several compression schemes. And whether I chose to output to tape, to the Web, or to CD, VideoWave made all the necessary adjustments.
Regrettably, the final quality left much to be desired. Titles appeared particularly smeared and jerky, and the output tape was noticeably murkier than the original.
The next version of VideoWave, due out out later this year, will let you move video directly from a digital camcorder to your PC, eliminating the tape-to-digital conversion process. In the meantime, though, I decided to go for more muscle.
Premiere 5.0 -- Grade: B+
The just-released Premiere 5.0 from Adobe combines some astounding features with plenty of new capabilities--and sells for a whopping $600. I realized that Premiere is no mere toy for casual users. Just the same, I gave it a whirl. The timeline window accommodates an amazing 99 video and 99 audio tracks, which the ambitious editor can nest and collapse like an outline. If I'd had three videographers along to document my trip, and needed to combine their tapes into one high-tech vacation video, Premiere could have handled the task with ease. As it was, I had nowhere near 99 tracks; but even so, nesting made working with numerous elements simpler. Another feature I found useful was the software's project window. After labeling elements with a name, duration, and location, I could locate them easily when I needed them.
I jumped right on another interesting feature: rolling and crawling titles (something most video editing programs don't offer). I created lines of text scrolling from bottom to top--thanking my friend's many relatives for taking us in, and the restaurateur in Vitória for making us dinner long after his restaurant closed.
With such breadth of features and great documentation, Premiere lets the serious video student learn how to do things right. But it's overkill for a casual user like me.
Lumiere Video Studio 2.0 -- Beta software, not graded
The last time we reviewed Lumiere (New Products, April 1997), the video editing software had a different owner. But Corel sold it to IMSI last fall, so I was curious about the new version, Lumiere Video Studio 2.0, which comes bundled with Corel Photo-Paint 7. I looked at a prerelease copy of the software.
At $79, Lumiere costs less than VideoWave, but its feature set comes closer to Premiere's. Its dozens of special effects, from Smoked Glass to Psychedelic Color, made my video do everything but backflips. Every option comes with detailed controls. For example, the Puzzle special effect lets you set the width, height, and offset of the jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Though most of the effects are a little too gaudy even for my Carnival-inflected tastes, there's certainly something for everyone here.
A huge collection of transition options let me move easily from scene to scene using everything from standard side-to-side wipes to Curtain or Funnel segues. Lumiere can almost instantly generate a production preview, including various complex special effects--a capability that encouraged me to experiment freely. I found the controls for special effects, titles, and other components easy to grasp at a glance. And the final movie looked quite stunning--the compression process caused very little loss of detail and minimal distortion.
So now I have a vacation video patched together from clips edited with several different software packages, and though my friends are thoroughly impressed, I'm exhausted. The Pinnacle Studio 400 fits my basic video editing needs most closely at the moment, though I may outgrow it by the time I embark on my next exotic vacation--in which case I plan to settle on one multipurpose piece of editing software. If I have a big chunk of money left after airfare, I'll buy a copy of Premiere; but if I've spent it all in some tropical paradise, I'll happily settle for Lumiere. Now I just have to decide where to go.
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