Special Effects Generators: Buyer’s Guide

When lines formed around the block in 1979 for a new flick called Star Wars, it wasn’t due to the films’ unique script. Even with all those great characters like Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Darth Vader, audiences flocked to the mega-hit for another reason altogether: the groundbreaking special effects.

Since the earliest days of projected and broadcast entertainment, special effects provided a way to capture an audience’s imagination and attention. From simple in-camera effects and mirror illusions to today’s sophisticated computer-driven, motion-control, 3-D modeling work, moving image magic is a tool vital to big-screen success. Visual slight-of-hand, however, isn’t solely for use by multi-million dollar cinema and television producers. While the hobbyist videographer’s special effects probably won’t rival James Cameron’s latest eye-candy, it’s possible for an up-and-coming DeMille to have a trick or two up his sleeve, turning an ordinary video into something extraordinary. Let’s take a look at the types of equipment that will help you achieve that extraordinary look.

What’s so Special?

First off, you should know that the term "special effects" applies to a wide range of techniques. Obviously, that ultra-cool time-warping stunt featured in The Matrix is a special effect. But in the video realm, a simple transition from one scene to another can be classified as a special effect. In fact, fades, wipes and dissolves are all special effects. Anytime you manipulate a video signal from its original recorded form you use a special effect.

Special effects generators, or SEGs for short, can serve as live switchers or post-production effects creators. They come in one of two types: stand-alone units and computer-based software programs. Both provide the most basic function of synchronizing multiple video sources in order to perform a glitchless cut. Most allow for some form of chromakey, which replaces one color (chroma) on the screen with a second video signal. This technique places your local weatherman in front of a computer-generated map on the evening news. Some devices permit lumakeying, but not chromakey. Luminance keys replace a shade of brightness (usually black or white) with another image. This is better than nothing, but not as flexible as color keying. Some provide color effects like sepia or black and white.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You’ll find that as the price of the SEG climbs, so do its features.

Getting Started

For those just starting out and looking for an entry-level machine there’s the SED-EM Video EditMaster ($150) from Sima. It allows for fades to and from a black or white screen; color effects, detail and brightness controls; a split screen option to compare your original video with the enhanced image and a three channel audio mixer for the addition of narration or music.

Sima’s SFX-M ($600) features a built-in TBC, providing you with true studio-style dissolve and wipe transitions not often found in mid-priced stand-alone units. Budding TV news producers will appreciate the SFX-M’s chromakey function, which superimposes one moving image over another. The vast array of digital effects on the unit – strobe, still, mosaic, paint and color negative – not to mention unlimited wipes and fades in eight colors, can help make even the most mundane footage more fun for the viewers.

Stepping Up

Videonic’s MX-1 ($999) is a four-input video production switcher, mixer, frame synchronizer/TBC and special effects generator. The MX-1 makes over 200 video effects possible, including fades, wipes, slides, dissolves, zooms, picture-in-picture, flips, solarization, color inverse, filter and more. A neat, cost-saving feature is the MX-1’s preview display. It allows for a reduced view of all four video inputs on one screen, eliminating the need to buy five monitors.

Building on the MX-1’s platform, Videonics also offers the MXPro ($1,799) and MXProDV ($2,495). Both accept four inputs and perform more than 500 effects and transitions, process the video signal and perform luma- and chromakey effects. The main difference between the two SEGs is that the MXPro DV has two FireWire inputs and a FireWire output for mixing DV sources, while the MXPro has analog inputs and outputs only.

Rounding out the stand-alone SEG market are two products from Panasonic Broadcast and Digital Systems. Over 298 wipe patterns are available through the company’s WJ-MX20 ($1,550). Downstream keying, color correction, 460 lines of resolution and digital effects such as multi-strobe and picture scrambling are just a sampling of the device’s other features. The WJ-MX50A ($4,295) is a truly professional SEG, with features commonly found in high-end post-production studios. Compatible with a wide variety of video editing devices, the WJ-MX50 packs a two-channel digital frame synchronizer that permits special effects in each of the A/B program buses. That means, when you’re applying a strobe effect on one tape source, you can dissolve to a second source that is also receiving digital enhancement. The numerous wipes, compression, joystick positioning and 62 levels of digital effects (like strobe, mosaic and paint) make this a formidable weapon in any video arsenal.

Do you compute?

Though stand-alone units offer an impressive array of effects, it’s tough to match the versatility and expandability of a computer-based SEG. These generally let you control switching and effects via point-and-click mouse commands. The Video Toaster ($2,995), by NewTek, offers Windows NT/2000 users more than 300 transition effects and a character generator. An optional switcher ($1,995) provides up to eight analog inputs. Play’s Trinity ($6,495) offers a vast array of transitions, editing and titling effects in a broadcast-quality environment. The base price includes just two inputs, but the Trinity system can be configured for up to eight inputs at an extra charge.

Cause an Effect

Special Effects Generators operate pretty much like any other processing tool – the better the input, the better the output. So before you start shopping for gear that’s gonna make your images shake, rattle and roll, be sure your basic video production skills are up to snuff. That said, SEGs – both stand-alone and computer-based – open up a whole new world of opportunity to help the videographer cause an effect.
The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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