In the film Hearts of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola made a telling remark on the future of motion pictures.
He said that the next great film may well come from a young girl shooting with her father’s camera.
If someone asked him today, he might add that she’ll probably edit it on her family’s DTV computer.
There’s no doubt that DTV post-production is impressive. Once you have digitized your video, you can store it on
the hard disk and access any part of it in seconds. Using tape, you spend more time on fast forward and rewind than
you do editing. With random access nonlinear, you can jump to a video or audio clip at any point on the disk and keep
playing without missing a frame. Add to that the ability to make countless copies without any generation loss, and
you can see why some people say tape is dead.
In this piece, we’ll look at the pros and cons of digital nonlinear editing. We’ll tell you who makes the software and
hardware, how it works, and whether or not you’re likely to be trading in your VCR for a hard disk.
Impressive But Expensive
One catch: you may not fit much video on that hard disk. When digitized, video data is huge. A single frame
takes up nearly one megabyte of storage; in just a few seconds, an uncompressed video stream would fill a one-
hundred meg hard disk.
Lucky for us, the new technology of compression and decompression (codec for short) allows you
to squeeze more video into a smaller space. But codecs do this at a cost to image quality. When using the popular
Motion JPEG codec, video images begin to suffer at a compression ratio of 10:1 (which discards a whopping 90% of
the video data). At 20:1, digital compression artifacts become obvious.
Before using a codec, we could store just a few seconds of video on a hundred meg drive. At 20:1, that puts us
close to a minute on the same drive. At an average storage cost of $100 for that minute, you can see why digital video
has failed to make tape obsolete. At ten cents or so for one minute of high-quality Hi8 or S-VHS tape, there is simply
This is changing very rapidly. Costs of hard disk storage are dropping faster than 50% per year, and the speed and
power of computers continues to double about every 18 months. So it’s likely that you will be able to at least play
with nonlinear editing sometime soon.
If you start with software like Adobe Premiere or Avid Videoshop on the Macintosh, or perhaps Premiere for
Windows on the PC, you can gain experience with nonlinear timeline-based video and sound editing. (For more on
this, see the March 1994 issue). The entry cost is just a few hundred to a thousand dollars or so, and most everything
you learn will transfer to any of the integrated nonlinear systems. These, by the way, can cost up to $90,000 (for
Avid’s industry-leading Media Composer).
Digitizing Your Video
To begin nonlinear editing, you’ll need some way to digitize your video and audio clips.
On the PC, you could try to locate someone with an Intel Smart Video Recorder Pro (or the Creative Labs Video
Blaster RT300). These cards, which cost about $500, will make files you can take to any PC for editing, since they
don’t need the capture card and its codec to play back.
These products use the new Indeo codec from Intel. This is a consumer codec that uses hardware for compression
but software only for decompression; that’s why it’s called a "hardware-software" codec. Indeo can play back without
special hardware on the fast new Pentiums and PowerMacs (there is no Indeo capture card for the Mac as yet). If you
buy your own Indeo card, you can offer friends a digitizing service.
The Motion-JPEG codecs found in other video capture cards need hardware to compress and decompress. The
same goes for MPEG, used for Video CD-ROMs and compressed direct broadcast satellite video. They are
A Motion-JPEG card creates a file that, in theory, can play back on other M-JPEG cards. But in practice we’ve
found very few cards that can read each other’s files. In a recent study, only the Miro DC1 TV card played back
another card’s file (Videologic MediaSpace), and not vice versa.
Most of these cards work very well, and all come bundled with editing software. Eight of the top ten PC cards
come with Adobe Premiere for Windows.
On the Macintosh, capture and compression cards have been costly until now. See the Screen Tests column for the
first Mac capture and compression card under $1000, Supermac’s SpigotPower AV.
Rendering Your Effects
Digital effects programs work much better on the Mac platform than on the PC. Programs like CoSA After
Effects (compositing), VideoFusion (morphing), and Infini-D (3-D animation) have really helped make the Mac the
DTV platform of choice for short, punchy MTV-type videos.
But be warned: these programs take some time to "render" (or crunch the numbers on) all those snazzy effects.
Prepare to let your machine work overnight and come in the next morning to see your finished video.
Despite this slowness, the quality of the video they produce is "ready for prime time." One husband-and-wife
production team sold five twenty-second spots produced on a Macintosh Quadra to ESPN for $100,000. That’s $1000
per second of finished video! They used a Radius VideoVision Studio card and Adobe Premiere editing software that
cost about what they received for just one of their five ESPN-2 spots. What a payback!
Even for short works like this, you’ll have to purchase a large hard disk for your video files. I recommend fast AV-
ready removable hard drives like the Micropolis Microdisk AV LT. AV-ready hard drives drop information during
capture or skip frames on playback, as ordinary computer-data hard disks often do.
A Hundred to Choose From
Okay, we’re ready to move forward from our strategy of editing clips digitized on a friend’s capture card. The next
step? Nonlinear editing.
Nearly 100 nonlinear products appeared at this year’s NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show. Even the
citadels of tape, Sony and Panasonic, have announced nonlinear systems (Destiny and PostBox). We clearly can’t
afford to discuss them all in a brief article, so we’ll mention a few that you should know about.
Touchvision’s D/Vision Pro ($3950) has served as an "offline" editing system for many major motion pictures and
television shows. ("Offline" means making editing decisions on a copy of the master, or a lower resolution version
requiring less storage space.)
The software is DOS-based, and the hardware-hardware codec uses a compression scheme called DVI (Digital
Video Interactive), developed years ago by RCA and Intel. Touchvision will probably move their editing software to
a Motion-JPEG capture and compression card soon.
Hybrid Editing Systems
The major players in computer-based linear editors and switcher/SEGs are all planning nonlinear options soon. (See
last month’s column for details on computer-based switcher/SEGs like the Fast Video Machine, and Matrox Studio.)
Machines like these that offer both options are called hybrid systems.
A hybrid system uses your tape-based footage for the final edit, so the edit master is free of digital artifacts. Hybrid
systems are faster than both linear systems, with their searching and cueing time, and nonlinear systems, with their
lengthy rendering time for effects.
The best hybrid system is, without a doubt, the Digital Player/Recorder nonlinear option for the FAST
Video Machine ($4000, Lite $2500). The speedy tape-based editing on the Fast Video Machine is even faster with the
DP/R ($6000). This single card puts two digital disk-based VCRs in the same box with the tape-based editor and
SEG, mixing linear and nonlinear editing for about $10,000.
Music Video Heaven
The FAST DP/R card functions like two digital VCRs running at the same time. The hardware feeds two
streams of video to the Video Machine card via a special high-capacity connector called the FAST Video Bus. The
result: real-time transition effects, like those in the ImMIX VideoCube and Avid Media Composer, at prices one-third
of those purely digital systems. No need to wait for effects to render–the Fast Video Machine has the dedicated
processing to perform even the flashiest transitions in on the fly.
Since one of the DP/R’s recorders can record while the other one plays, you can do effects with the Video Machine
between one DP/R source and one tape source, and record the effects to hard disk.
The DP/R has eight tracks of synchronized DAT-quality digital audio. You can lay down a "bed" of
music and cut the video to the beat. This makes the Fast VM-DP/R perfect for low-budget music videos.
The DP/R can even do rotoscoping and animation recording. You can compress a sequence of computer animation
files (like the output from Autodesk 3D-Studio or Animator Pro) and play them back in real time through the VM-
DP/R, which eliminates the need for a costly single-frame animation recorder.
Matrox now offers a nonlinear option for their Studio editor. At the moment, it is a separate but very powerful
nonlinear editor like the Avid Media Suite Pro, which just happens to be in the same box with the Studio. It doesn’t
allow you to mix analog and digital video as you can with the FAST. You use the nonlinear Studio "offline" to create
an edit decision list (cuts only, at present). You then open up the linear Studio, add your effects, and do your "online"
NewTek also offers a nonlinear option for the Toaster called Flyer. It makes the Toaster a nonlinear editing system.
In linear mode, you can’t edit with the Toaster without adding a separate controller card (like the RGB Amilink),
audio mixing, and separate time base correctors. Now the Toaster Flyer has digital audio and video, with what they
describe as "D2-quality" images produced by a proprietary new hardware-hardware codec called VTASC (Video
Toaster Adaptive Statistical Compression).
Toaster Flyer’s nonlinear editing interface will be instantly familiar to Toaster fans. A "crouton" (NewTek’s name
for the buttons that initiate effect transitions in the Toaster) represents each video clip. You simply arrange
your clip croutons in the desired sequence order, and interleave transition croutons where you want them. Some call
this a "storyboard" rather than a "timeline." Clips in the sequence are in time order, but all clips appear the same
length on the screen in Flyer. A true timeline interface like the Video Machine shows each clip (usually with picture
icons) with a length that is proportional to the duration of the clip.
PLAY, the new company formed by executives from Digital Creations, Progressive Image Technology, and
NewTek, is likely to offer a nonlinear editor in early 1995 at the NAB show.
If you’re already thinking about a nonlinear system that costs several thousand dollars, you should also look at the
low-end of the nonlinear product line from Avid Technology. Avid pioneered nonlinear. They won an Emmy for it,
and their name is almost synonymous with nonlinear in Hollywood and broadcast production circles.
Their $10,000 Media Suite Pro is a set of cards that you add to a suitably equipped Macintosh computer (typically
$12,000 with monitor, memory, hard disks, etc.) Data Translation’s Media 100 is also Macintosh-based. It costs a few
thousand dollars more than Media Suite Pro, but its picture quality has dazzled industry observers.
Digital Video Distribution
Familiarizing yourself with digitized video today could reap many benefits in the future. And those benefits
stretch beyond the knowledge of how to use the tools. Digital video compression provides more ways for you to
distribute your work. At present, it looks like these new avenues will take the form of CD-ROMs and the "information
superhighway," a future fiber-optic extension of the Internet.
To squeeze your movie onto a CD, you’ll need one of the new video interframe compression schemes. Indeo and
MPEG are good candidates. A third is Supermac Cinepak. Cinepak is a "software-software" codec, one that
compresses and decompresses without special hardware. It comes free with most nonlinear editing software and runs
on your PC or Mac, but at present it runs very slowly. Compressing a two-hour movie takes a whole month of twenty-
four hour operation on a fast desktop computer.
Once you’ve got your epic compressed, you might even dream about Internet distribution. Videomaker magazine is
launching a World-Wide Web server on the Internet that may become a distribution medium for videos.
As the net gets bigger and faster, it’s starting to do voice-grade radio broadcasting. It seems that video is the next
But let’s be realistic. To achieve digital video distribution that will let you download quality videos on request, we’ll
probably have to rip up thousands of miles of old copper wire and lay in a million-lane fiber-optic hyperhighway for
the twenty-first century.
Until that happens (as it surely will someday), we’ll have to content ourselves with the incredible changes digital
video compression is bringing to desktop video production.
Coming next month…We’ll conclude this series of articles with a survey of computer-generated
video, in which your DTV computer becomes a source of original video material.