If you’ve been setting an alarm clock
to wake up your audience, or have resorted to bribery to keep
your friends watching your productions, chances are you need to
add a little extra pizzazz to your videos. Whether you’re just
getting started in video production or are a well-seasoned camcorder
connoisseur, special effects generators (SEGs) and video mixers
are two popular products you can use during post-production to
put that extra kick into your videos. If you use a computer to
edit, there are also a number of special effects software packages
available to help you enhance your productions.

Think It Over


Mixers and SEGs are not created equal.
Like us, they sport unique features worthy of evaluation before
an honest judgment can be made. Before you jump into a major purchase,
sit down, pull out your scratch pad and take note. You’ve got
some questions to answer.

First, what type of effects do you
want to create? Simple fades and wipes? Or, do you want to create
more dramatic scrolls, page-peels and morphs? Do you want to accomplish
these special effects with a stand-alone unit, or will you be
using your computer to help liven up your production? Are you
a novice or a seasoned pro? If you are a beginner, are you willing
to tackle a sophisticated video mixer or would you rather start
with a simple, no-nonsense unit? There are plenty of choices available–just
do your homework and you’ll be creating eye-catching effects in
no time.

Before we jump into our coverage
of video mixers and SEGs, a few clarifications are necessary.
Quite often, you’ll see the terms “video mixer,” “SEG”
and “video switcher” used synonymously. While they do
perform many of the same functions, there are distinctions between
them–differences you need to know about to make an informed purchase.

A true video mixer (also called
a “switcher”) lets you perform effects–like dissolves,
fades and wipes, for example–between two video sources. This
is important, because some SEGs can only tolerate a single video
source. These single-source units are usually low-cost, and enable
you to perform simple effects like adding mosaics or sepia-tones
to your productions. Some single-source SEGs might also have basic
audio-mixing capabilities that let you combine more than one audio
source together. Before you decide to buy, evaluate your mixing
needs and make your purchase accordingly.

Effect Affection

Today’s technology has given the
consumer vast choices in the types of effects they can create
with their mixers. To cover all of these effects, we’d need more
than these few pages–so let’s take a broad-scope view of some
of the basics.

Fades, wipes and dissolves are among
the most basic–but necessary–functions you’ll find on an SEG.
The fade function lets you make the transition from live video
to a plain, colored background. Many camcorders on the market
today sport a built-in fade feature; check your camcorder to see
if it has one before you buy a special unit to perform this task.
Wipes use lines or patterns to replace one image with another.
Single-source units that perform wipes will usually fade or wipe
the image to a solid color, whereas dual-source units transition
between two moving video sources (a process known as A/B-roll).
Some units come with literally hundreds of wipe shapes: diamonds,
circles or hearts are just a few you might come across. Dissolves
allow you to make a smooth transition from one scene to another.

Keying is another effect found on
most mixers and SEGs. This effect lets you electronically superimpose
an image over a background. Two common types of keys are chroma
keying and luminance keying. In a nutshell, chroma keying lets
you replace a certain color in your video with an image or another
video stream entirely (an effect commonly seen on the evening
news, when the weatherman hovers over the computer graphics).
Luminance keying is essentially the same thing, only it works
on the black-and-white portion of the signal instead of the color.

Features such as paint, strobe and
mosaic are other effects you’re likely to find on your SEG or
mixer. Using a paint feature can give your production the look
of an oil painting; strobe effects (also called stop-action effects)
often come in low-, medium-, and high-speeds; a “freeze”
option will let you stop the action in your video altogether.
Mosaic effects turn your video image into small blocks of color.
More complex 3D effects, dramatic page peels and “morphs”
have also become increasingly popular, and can be found on many
of the computer software programs we’ll look at later.

More Specific, Please

Now that you’ve done a preliminary
survey of your needs and learned what type of effects are available
to you, let’s take a look at a few specific models of SEGs and
mixers at various price points.

Ambico’s V-6321 is compatible with
all home video formats. Features include luminance gain control,
which allows users to correct overly bright or excessively dim
images, and color gain control, which adjusts the color saturation
of scenes. Complete with microphone and audio-mixing capabilities,
the V-6321 retails for $208.

Another option is Sima’s FX-L Video
Ed/it, an automatic infrared special effects editor that lets
you pre-program up to 46 edit points, and automatically edit your
home videos with color fades and wipes. Users can choose from
eight different colors, and select from hundreds of wipe and fade
effects. It also includes an audio mixer, microphone and cables.
This unit has Y/C and composite connectors, and carries a suggested
retail pricetag of $495.

Videonics’ MX-1 Digital Video Mixer
lets you perform over 200 video effects including fades, wipes,
slides and chroma or luminance keying. The Digital Video Mixer
accepts one to four video sources that you can switch between
with a single button, and transitions can take place manually
or automatically. Users can choose from over 200 video effects,
including a Picture-in-Picture (PIP) feature that allows you to
place one image (sized how you want) within another picture on
your screen. The MX-1 also allows you to mix audio, and a “Compose”
feature lets you paint lines and borders in any color on moving
or still backgrounds. This unit retails for $1200.

Panasonic’s WJ-AVE55 Digital A/V
Mixer offers consumers digital effects, transitions and keying
capabilities similar to those found on prosumer A/V mixers. Like
other stand-alone mixers, the WJ-AVE55 lets you blend two audio
and/or video sources in a variety of ways. It features 191 A/B
wipe patterns, picture-in-picture, A/V fade, chroma and luminance
key, and also sports a Scene Grabber that lets you grab a portion
of a still or moving image from one video source and move it to
another source. The WJ-AVE55 retails for $1500.

Computer-based SEGs are usually
comprised of one or more plug-in cards with video input and output
jacks, and the software necessary to run them. NewTek’s Video
Toaster for the Amiga ($2395) is capable of performing transitions
between two or more video sources (provided you have synchronized
them with an external time base corrector), as well as character
generation, luminance keying and chroma keying. A nonlinear upgrade,
the Toaster Flyer, is available for $4995.


Soft Stuff

Computer-based nonlinear editing
has brought with it a demand for special-effects software packages–and
there are plenty of them. These packages offer videographers of
all skill levels the opportunity to explore an entirely new world
of special effects with relative ease, and are available at price
ranges likely to fit your budget.

Kai’s Power Goo by MetaTools allows
users to create “liquid” images–images that move around
like liquid on the screen–and then manipulate them in real-time
by smearing, stretching, shrinking and blending. Users can create
caricatures of their favorite political figures, family members,
pets–you name it. Goo sells for just $49.

If you have a little more to spend,
Gryphon Software’s Morph 2.5 is worth considering. Available for
both Macintosh and Windows users, Morph 2.5 allows users to create
morphs from separate animations, exaggerate a person’s features
with the Caricature feature, or distort images through warping.
It retails for $99.

Retailing for $120 is Andover Advanced
Technology’s VideoCraft 3.6. This special effects package gives
users the ability to create short animations and video clips.
The package also includes a method to perform simple nonlinear
edits using a storyboard to put together your video clips.

Strata’s MediaPaint is another digital
video special effects and painting application. This software
allows users to create special effects using plug-in, time-based
particle tools. These tools let the user draw a path where the
effect is to take place, then the program produces the effect
over a series of frames. MediaPaint retails for $695.

If keeping to a low budget is not
a huge concern, Ultimatte Corporation’s Ultimatte for Adobe might
suit your needs. This plug-in transition software lets users perform
image compositing and other special effects like rendering blue
screen video–with a price tag of $1495.

Another type of special effect available
to nonlinear editors is the plug-in transition. These effects
usually plug right into your existing nonlinear editing software
(such as Adobe Premiere or Ulead MediaStudio) to give you flexibility
and creative control unlike any stand-alone unit.

One such product is HollywoodFX
Take32 by Synergy International, Inc. This plug-in software package
lets you perform 32 basic transitions in the form of 3D shapes
or 3D transitions–all of which can be manipulated in a number
of interesting and creative ways. The package retails for $99.

A similar product is CrystalGraphics’
3D Vortex($198). Vortex uses many high-resolution 3D graphics
to spice up your Adobe Premiere 4.2, Ulead MediaStudio 2.5 or
FAST VM-Studio PLUS transitions.

One consideration you should keep
in mind about using software to create your special effects is
time. Once you tell your computer the type of effect you’re after,
the computer must render the information. Depending on what type
of computer system you have, and the length, complexity and resolution
of your transitions, rendering can take anywhere from 5 minutes
to many hours–sometimes even a day or two. If seeing the special
effects you’ve created instantly on your screen appeals to you,
you might want to consider using a stand-alone SEG. While there
are some computer systems that can render in near-real-time, these
systems are few and far-between–and quite expensive.

For more information about these
and other special effects software packages, see the Special Effects
Hardware/Software Buyer’s Guide
in the March, 1997 edition of
Videomaker.

Ready, Set, Shop

Now that we’ve surveyed the hardware
and software necessary to produce your own special effects, it’s
time to hit the stores. Before you put down your hard-earned cash,
though, make sure you know what features you want to perform,
and know how much of a learning curve you’re willing to tackle.
Special effects hardware and software come in a wide range of
experience- and price-levels. With a little thought, you can make
a purchase that’ll help you perform effects that aren’t only special–but
long-lasting in your viewer’s mind.

Alice Greany is Videomaker‘s Editorial Assistant.

SIDEBAR: Manufacturers


Ambico

147 E. 57th St.

New York, NY 10022

800-732-6866

Andover Advanced Technology

532 Great Road

Acton, MA

508-635-5300

Fast Electronic

393 Vintage Park Dr. Suite 140

Foster City, CA 94404

800-684-6684

MetaCreations (MetaTools)

6303 Carpenteria Ave.

Carpenteria, CA 93013

805-566-6200

Gryphon Software Corp.

7220 Trade Street, Suite 120

San Diego, CA 92121

619-536-8815

Strata

2 West St. George Blvd., Suite 2100

St. George, UT

800-678-7282

Ultimatte Corporation

20554 Plummer St.

Chatsworth, CA 91311

818-993-8007

Panasonic

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

201-348-9090

JVC Professional

41 Slater Drive

Elmwood Park, NJ 07407

800-582-5825

Sima

140 Pennsylvania Ave. #5

Oakmont, PA 15139

800-345-7462

NewTek

5505 Central Ave.

Boulder, CO 80301

303-448-9700

Synergy International, Inc.

300 E. 4500 South Ste. 100

Salt Lake City, UT 84107

800-796-7491

Videonics

1370 Dell Ave.

Campbell, CA 95008

408-866-8300

This list is only a sampling;
it is not intended to be comprehensive.

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