I've long told my friends, and anybody else who would listen, that the best reasons to own a personal computer are three simple applications: word processing, Adobe Photoshop, and Microsoft Excel (I'm sure you could name your own top three, but these are mine). These are what made me the "artist plus techno geek" I am today, forgoing many of the things I used to do in the real-world like soaking my fingers in photo developer, or building a collection of type balls for my IBM Selectric typewriter. Today, if asked, I would add one more application to the list of reasons to own a PC: digital video (DV).
Pixels in Pixels Out
What makes DV such an ideal use for a PC is that it replaces the tedious process of taking VHS tapes and trying to edit them together using expensive video gear, including esoteric things like time-base correctors (see glossary). For older folk, it also makes the days of splicing Super8mm film the dark ages (unless you're in film school). For professionals, DV editing has been around a long time now in the form of Avid and Media100 editing stations, among others. Typically, these high-end systems capture traditional film to video, edit in the digital world, then output back to film using film recorders. All of that, however, is outside the scope of this article.
For the average multimedia artist, and even the casual home user shooting baby footage, DV opens up the world of desktop video to anybody, and can provide professional results at a fraction of the cost of professional editing systems. Although DV covers many different aspects, tools, and techniques, we will be concentrating today on the most common and approachable flavor of DV: using a miniDV camera to shoot scenes, capture those to your PC, edit them, add effects/transitions, and output to a viewable format. This is the basic set of tasks that anyone wanting to learn DV should begin with (see flowchart, below).
Small Price Big Results
One of the innovations that has made desktop video so usable for the average person is the advent of FireWire (Sony calls it i.Link), or IEEE 1394, which is a standard connection protocol which provides a high-speed connection between so-equipped miniDV cameras, and computers. If your Mac or Windows-PC, and your video camera, each have a "FireWire port," then you can do digital. The advent of super-fast computers and the high-speed port (similar to USB) replace costly analog-to-digital "capture cards," which have been used traditionally to bring video (such as from a VCR, or from the video outs of a super high-quality video camera) into the computer. In fact, you can now buy a decent miniDV camera for what a mid-price capture card costs.
The other innovation is, of course, the miniDV format itself. This smaller version of the professional DVcam format now used for independent film-making, and electronic news gathering (ENG), offers much of the same features with only a small trade-off in quality. The difference would be noticeable on a theater screen, but certainly not on our average TV, computer, or home big screen.
Your Mac will need to be at least a 300MHz PPC, and your PC should be at least a 400MHz Pentium II, for best results. If your computer doesn't have a FireWire port, you can add one by installing a PCI card into an available slot, and for notebooks you can get a CardBus (PCM-CIA) card to add the feature. Your video camera will usually not be upgradeable to FireWire if the port is not already standard. The benefits of FireWire actually encourage you to replace/upgrade to a new miniDV camera if yours is too old to have the needed port.
The price of miniDV cameras have come down, and the quality has gone up, because they use much of the same image sensor technology as the point-and-shoot digital cameras which have gone from low-quality to mega-pixels in just a few years. Similarly, the early Canon and Sony miniDV cameras which had 640 thousand pixels of image resolution have been replaced by cameras which have 1,070 thousand pixels resolution (megapixel) while still using a single 1/4" CCD sensor. I recently purchased a Sony model which also supports widescreen recording mode.
Basically, you will need a FireWire cable to connect your video camera to your computer, and then the computer and software will take care of the transfer of video and sound into a form you can work with. When completely done, you can send the edited video back to your camera (onto a blank tape, of course), and/or write to other formats like video CD (VCD) using cheap CD-R blanks which can be viewed on most DVD players, or actually write a DVD if you have the proper DVD-RAM or DVD-R hardware.
Like all projects, pre-planning makes the difference in working with a project. This can include making a work list of all the shots, or clips, you already have on tape, or those you intend to shoot. You may also keep other notes like whether you will need to do a voice-over for narration, or add a music track, and keep a notebook handy to note where and when in your project you may need to add these elements.
It's important to remind you again here, that you should never use other people's work in a project you intend to show publicly (e.g., the Internet, cable access, at a tradeshow, etc.), or sell for a profit. This includes music off a CD, the radio, or Napster. I worked with a major Web portal recently that thought it would be cool to add the LucasFilm THX opening sound byte at the start of their Web radio show, until I told them that it's a copyright infringement. Remember, that if you didn't create it from scratch, you can't use it without permission. Additionally, you can't shoot other people in certain places and broadcast them without permission. So, use common sense.
The software you choose can also play a huge part in what you intend to do with the finished projects. If you shoot long complex scenes with no "cuts," which is a popular technique for smart directors with good scripts and actors, you should be aware of the one major caveat to capturing DV on a PC: file size. It takes about 2GB of hard drive space for every ten minutes of footage. Most computer operating systems have a maximum file size of 2GB, and some newer operating systems allow up to 4GB. So, if you had a fifteen minute scene you would need to capture two parts and edit them together, or use software that either grabs content in series (file1-1, file 1-2, etc.), or allows for larger file sizes. But, more on that later. If you intend to work with trade show or political speeches, music concerts, or other long-length material this might impact your productivity.
And, most importantly, it's wise to investigate which software is compatible with which DV camera, as not all applications have support for every camera brand and model.
If you just want to get your feet wet, and get a feel for what's possible. Shoot some simple video of your pet, a truck going by, or your spouse brushing their teeth and grimacing when you try to video tape them doing so. Ideally you should have at least two different scenes if you want to learn how to edit and transition between scenes. If you really want to get started at square one - just shoot anything, and we'll get started bringing it into the PC.
From Camera to Monitor
First you will need to install your DV software. This will have shipped with your camera, or your computer (Apple includes the versatile iMovie 2 with most of their new computers), or you may have purchased it separately. This must be done first because the software may need appropriate "drivers" in order to connect your camera into the application via the FireWire port. These drivers allow the software and your camera to talk to one another. In fact, with the right software, and a compatible camera, you should be able to fully control your camera's play and transport functions remotely from your software. We'll cover some software options toward the end of this article.
If your software is installed, follow the documentation as to when to plug-in your camera via the FireWire port, using a FireWire cable. Some applications prefer you plug the camera in before starting the software, others prefer you start the application first. The reason for this is that one method or the other will allow the software to "sense" that the camera is there, turned on, and ready to capture video from.
All DV capture tools have similar controls. Generally you will have options for setting whether sound or video is compressed, where you want to save it (for instance, you might have two hard drives on your PC, and want to save all video files to the second drive, which is the recommended method), and adjustments for color and sound level. To begin with, you can typically leave everything except the save file location (usually under an options, or preferences, pull-down menu or tab), as the default and try doing video capture.
It is highly recommended that before you do anything, you ensure that the video tapes you are copying from (the ones which you will have in your miniDV camera), are "write protected." This ensures that if you hit the wrong button someplace in your software, your camera won't accidentally erase the tape you're trying to capture from!