When I tried to convert my old home videotapes to a format I could edit on my PC a few months ago, I ran into one hassle after another.
The video capture technology failed so often that, for days, I spent more time talking with technical support than with my wife.
But video needn't be so hard to get into a computer.
If you're willing to start from scratch with digital video from a new Mini-DV camera, the word "ordeal" slips out of your vocabulary. With relative ease, you can import DV into your computer, remove the chaff surrounding the few precious moments of tape that are worth saving, toss a few titles over the images and then dump them to videocassette, CD-ROM or the Internet.
With a DV camera and PC editing set up, you can shoot the kids opening their presents on Christmas morning and zap a video to Grandma within half an hour after the last bow is untied. And of course, you can play DV tapes through your TV.
While a digital video setup isn't cheap -- about twice the cost of a conventional analog video camera with the similar features -- it costs less than a good stereo system, and it has two major advantages: quality and longevity.
Mini-DV cameras produce crisp, broadcast-quality images with up to 520 lines of resolution -- twice the quality of standard VHS tape. They also record near-CD quality sound.
Unlike conventional, analog VHS and 8mm cameras -- which try to capture a magnetic "image" of video and audio -- mini-DV systems are really tiny computers that encode sound and pictures as a series of ones and zeros. The digital video can be stored on tape, on a CD or a computer's hard drive.
And once you've shot a digital video, you can copy, review and re-edit those digital signals without degrading the original. Analog tapes degrade every time they're played; by the time they've been copied a few times, they're practically unwatchable.
To turn a Windows-based PC into a digital video editing system, you'll probably have to install an IEEE 1394 adapter card, which provides a high-speed connection for a cable from your mini-DV camera. They're available for $70 and up from companies such as Pinnacle Systems, Dazzle and ADS Technologies.
Newer Macs and some high-end Sony PCs already have these high-speed ports, connections that Apple calls FireWire and Sony calls i.Link. Whatever the name, they're much faster and more reliable than the USB ports that computers use for communication with printers, scanners and other gadgets.
Although DV cameras were prohibitively expensive just a few years ago, you can find them for as little as $800 in stores and even less on the Internet (just make sure you know who you're dealing with). DV cameras with better lenses and more sophisticated, built-in editing features run between $1,000 and $1,600. DV tapes, which hold up to an hour of video, cost $10 to $20 -- the more expensive tapes have time-coding chips built in.
Before you buy a camera, take a look at your computer. Is it up to the task? While makers of several PC editing systems claim you need only a Pentium 266 with 32 megabytes of RAM, digital video isn't worth tackling unless you have a 500 MHz Pentium III with at least 64 megabytes of memory (128 MB preferred) of RAM. You'll want a 15-gigabyte or bigger hard drive that spins at 7200 RPM and carries the "ultra fast" designation. DV has a monster appetite for space -- more than 200 megabytes for every minute.
If your computer has the horsepower, your next big purchase is the camera. If you plan to shoot lots of video, a topnotch unit such as the feature-rich Sony DCR-TRV20 ($1,400) is a superb investment over the long run. The sturdy DCR-TRV20 that we used to test PC video editing systems came with a host of bells and whistles, including 14 picture effects (fades, dissolves and so on), as well as a superb 10X Carl Zeiss optical zoom lens.
For importing DV into a computer and editing it, Pinnacle Systems' $90 Studio DV card and software were reliable and easy to use. I plugged the Studio DV adapter card in a PCI expansion slot inside my computer, loaded up the software -- which includes an instructive tutorial -- and connected a FireWire cable between the Sony camcorder and Pinnacle adapter card. That was all it took.
The video-editing software actually controls the camera so that you can use your keyboard or mouse to rewind, play and fast-forward through your tape as you figure out which scenes should go where. Choose specific scenes, trim them and then move them around for a non-linear editing experience -- the way the pros do it.
While a single Mini-DV tape may hold an hour's worth of video, you'll need 13.2 gigabytes of hard-drive space to store it all on your PC. To keep your drive from filling up, the Studio DV software comes with something called SmartCapture, which compresses your video to a preview quality so that an hour's worth occupies only 150 megabytes of space.
Once you've edited your movie -- adding titles, scene transitions, music and narration -- the program goes back to the original tape and records only the portions you want into high-resolution video.
When you're done, the software will store your video in the format of your choice -- as an uncompressed AVI file for use in Windows programs, as a compressed MPEG video for a CD-ROM or in the RealVideo format for streaming video for the Internet.
ADS Technologies' $70 Pyro BasicDV card worked as well as Pinnacle's, once installed. It uses an equally intuitive but somewhat less sophisticated editor, Ulead VideoStudio 4.01. Missing is SmartCapture, which makes the Pinnacle package a better deal.
On the plus side, VideoStudio has an easier learning curve, and a bundled program called Video Wizard walks you through the DV editing process with easily digestible steps and a simplified editing interface.
VideoStudio also keeps track of changes you make in your video as part of something it calls SmartRender. If you've made changes, it will take those into account when outputting your video. But in places where no changes have been made, it plays the video in real time.
Perhaps the simplest FireWire setup I tested was Dazzle's $100 DV-Editor for Notebook Computers, which uses a PC card that slides into a slot on your laptop and comes bundled with a special edition of Ulead's software.
If you only have a laptop and want to output your video to CD-ROM, Dazzle makes a good choice. It compresses your video into the MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video formats, which allow you to put an hour of broadcast quality video on one CD, compared to 30 CDs for using Windows' .AVI format.
More ambitious filmmakers may want to take a look at Pinnacle System's Studio DV 500 ($900), which includes professional quality editing programs such as Adobe Premiere 5.1 and Sonic Foundry Acid Music.
While the DV 500 has a FireWire connection, it also allows users to import analog video through a breakout box connected to a PCI adapter card.
ADS Technologies offers a high-end version of its basic package as well called the Pyro ProDV ($500), which includes more powerful software such as Ulead MediaStudio Pro 6.0 and Animation Master.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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