Got a video that’s lacking something? Missing that elusive technical and aesthetic spice that holds the audience from the opening fade to the final credits?

Maybe it needs a dash of special effects. You see examples of special effects all the time on network TV, like the small boxes over a newscaster’s shoulder or the flying window that shows the instant replay of the last touchdown. To add such effects to your own videos, all it takes is the right special effects generator, or SEG. With an SEG and a little patience, you can find a world of video tricks just a button or two away.

What are they?
The concept of an SEG is simple. First, you feed a video image into the SEG from some type of source–a camcorder, a VCR, a titler or anything that generates or reproduces video images. Then you use the SEG’s controls to manipulate the image. When you find the effect or look that you like, record the new image on a tape in a second VCR.

Physically, SEGs come in two versions. One is a stand-alone box covered with lights, knobs and buttons; sort of a scaled-down model of what you’d find in a TV station. All you need to operate it is an AC outlet, some cables and an empty table. Of course you’ll need video, too.

The other version performs the same magic, but doesn’t look the same. Instead of living inside a box, the SEG sits on a card that plugs into a personal computer. The cards come with software to make the SEG work its magic. Some may include a control panel to simplify creating special effects.

To run one of these systems, you need more than just table space and some cables, however. At a minimum, you need a compatible computer with enough memory and hard disk space to work with the SEG system. You may also need special monitors, speakers and other equipment to see and hear what the SEG inside the computer is doing.

How to Buy One
If you’re in the market for an SEG, test drive as many models as you can before you buy. Scour ads and get as much product info as possible from manufacturers. Understand as much as you can about each product and what they do before you drop a dime. This is important because SEG manufacturers target a broad range of users. Some aim to please the average videomaker, with basic SEGs that offer a good array of features.

Other companies sell to enthusiasts either already in professional markets, or looking to get there one day. Their products may offer dramatically higher capabilities. They may also trade overall features for quality and durability, creating products that meet very specific needs, but do so very well.

Price differences between these two product ranges can scare you. One may be less than $700, the other close to $7000. They key for you is to think about what level of SEG you need, and study those within that range very carefully.

If you want to build toward a semi-pro or professional production studio, look at the top-of-the-line models. Most of these are computer-based. Depending on the manufacturer, you can find versions compatible with IBM, Amiga and Macintosh computers. These products won’t come cheap, and learning to make the most of them may take a serious time investment. The effort always pays off, however, when you discover a visual effect that improves your video more than you expected it would.

If you have the desire and the cash, consider NewTek’s popular Video Toaster, now available for both the Amiga ($2495) and Windows-based PCs ($7995). The IBM version includes frame-synchronization. Toaster products don’t work with Y/C, and don’t have audio mixing capabilities.

Fast Electronics makes the Video Machine for IBM or Macs ($3995), along with a slightly stripped-down Video Machine Lite ($2500) for PCs only. Both have image compression, frame synchronization and audio mixing built-in.

If you want a traditional pro video setup, you’ll want separate components, with each part performing one or two functions in the process. These systems are certainly the most expandable, and some preserve picture quality better than the all-in-one models.

As you might guess, these benefits don’t come cheap, however. Unless you have a healthy five-figure budget, they’re probably not worth considering. On the lower-cost side, JVC-Pro’s KM-1200 ($2560) is a full-function switcher and SEG suitable for professional work.

If you have less-than-professional aspirations, a midrange SEG with some extras included may be your best choice. Panasonic’s WJ-AVE7 ($1499) supports many features of more expensive models, including an option for adding a character generator. Sony’s XV-D1000 ($2600) also offers a number of features found on more expensive SEGs. Videonics makes the MX-1 ($1200), which includes Y/C, audio mixing and image compression effects.

If your purchase depends more on price than creative flexibility, you’ll want to focus on the most basic models. You’ll no doubt find ways to make these simple boxes work for you by using camcorders and VCRs more creatively during editing. Among the ones to check out are Ambico’s V-6300 ($400) and Sima’s Video Pro Magic ($500), both simple switchers.

The true budget-conscious videomaker may only have enough funds to get an SEG with color and luminance processing. These can help clean up the often fuzzy or smeary dub process, a welcome improvement to any setup. Ambico offers the V-6301 ($260), and Sima has the Pro Ed/it 3X ($240). Both have color and luminance processing, and Y/C support.

Using An SEG
Once the unit’s home and wired up, (which can be quite a task in itself, especially with computer-based systems), monkey with every knob, button, slider, menu item, extra gadget and gizmo you can find on the unit. Try to create visuals that look like things you see on TV or in films. Learn how every feature works.

Then think about where you can start using some of those features in your work. You could easily use the SEG on every shot in every project you do from now until the next millennium. Do yourself (and your viewers) a favor, and use a little restraint. Pick a few shots for which a nice effect will support or even improve the messages they convey. Restrict your use of special effects to only those shots.

If you’ve got an already impressive shot of the Grand Canyon, don’t bother finding an effect for it. It’s better on it’s own.

Perhaps one of the shots you took of your wife’s first attempt at snow skiing is a little blurry or shaky. Instead of leaving it out of the final video, consider posterizing it, adding a little strobe, and using it as a background for a titles.

Overdoing special effects can leave your projects looking more amateurish than before. People may watch and say to themselves, “I’ll bet they just got a new video gadget and had to use every feature on this one show.” Worst case, effects overload can even confuse the audience about what’s happening.

You’ll learn that special effects work best on some sort of transition. When you want to get from one part of a story or video to the next, a special effect usually bridges the gap effortlessly. Remember to focus your video tricks around transitions. Audiences have grown used to the technique, and perhaps even expect it.

Also, pay attention to how you see special effects used on cable and network TV. They’re the effects experts, and mimicking their tricks can inspire and improve your own projects.

Above all, realize that special effects alone can’t cure bad composition, sloppy camerawork or poor acting. They’re merely another tool to help you get more enjoyment and impact from making videos.

Michael Loehr is a video producer, editor and Videomaker contributing editor.


SEG Functions Defined


Like nearly all video equipment, no two SEGs work exactly alike. Some models perform only a few video effects on an image, others seem to do everything short of hiring the actors and rolling tape. Study them all. Decide which ones might have the most impact on your videos.

  • Frame synchronizers: Also called “frame chasers” or “frame syncs,” these synchronize video from two different sources to make glitch-free edits. With frame syncs, you don’t need external time base correctors (TBCs) to do A/B-roll editing. Some call frame syncs the “poor man’s TBC” because they lack some of the features of a true TBC.

  • Switcher: Once video signals are “locked” together with either a frame synchronizer or TBC, you can create transitions between them using a switcher. Basic switchers let you perform smooth cuts, dissolves and wipes between synchronized video sources. Better ones add extras like soft edge wipes, colored borders and backgrounds and drop shadows. Some switchers do not include frame synchronizers, which means you’ll need to invest in outboard TBCs to do A/B-roll editing.

  • Digital effects: When you turn analog video into digital bits, a computer can manipulate it in an unlimited number of interesting ways. Common digital video effects you’ll find on many SEGs include strobe, mosaic, freeze frame and posterization. More advanced models may offer defocus (image softening), split screen and multiple images. Some even let you design your own custom digital effects. Count on paying more for these extras.

  • Image compression: This feature may get lumped under the “digital effects” heading on certain SEGs. Either way, you’ll know it as the squeeze, or picture-in-picture effect where you see two images at once, one smaller than the other. Models that offer image compression may also offer image expansion, sometimes called image zoom.

  • Keying: Keyers superimpose one image over another; SEGs have one of two keyer types. Luminance keyers make certain areas of one image transparent based on its overall brightness or darkness. In these areas, you see the second image showing through. Chroma (color) keyers create transparent areas based on specific hues instead of brightness. Both work well, though you’ll find chromakey to be a little more flexible. Keyers are essential if you plan to add titles, logos or other graphics to your projects.

  • Character generator: CGs are a popular stand-alone product for many aspiring videomaker; now some companies offer them as part of their SEGs. Features and flexibility vary among built-in titlers, but most compare equally with their stand-alone brethren. If your titling needs won’t get too complex, an SEG with a character generator built-in may be just the ticket for you.

  • Luminance/video level controls: Use this control to adjust overall brightness or darkness of an image. It’s very handy if you shot video in a room with less-than-ideal light and want to brighten things up a bit. If you’re editing with some over-exposed footage, this control can also tone things down. Commonly found on time base correctors, it’s a handy feature to have on an SEG as well.

  • Chroma/hue controls: These are very similar in principal to the luminance controls, except they affect overall color level and hue. If the white balance in your camera turns your subjects’ skin a little green or blue on tape, these controls can help fix that. If dubbing causes a slight color reduction on your master tapes, these controls can sometimes compensate.

  • Y/C: Support for Y/C means the luminance or brightness portion of an image is kept separate from the chrominance or color portion during recording and dubbing. Keeping them apart improves dub picture quality. Both Hi8 and S-VHS offer Y/C signal processing. If you use either format, an SEG that works with Y/C will maintain cleaner images.

  • Audio mixing: Audio isn’t something typically associated with video special effects. Many companies, however, know the value of having all necessary controls in one place, so they add simple audio mixing to their SEGs. If you need to do more complex work than adding music, narration or sound effects, the mixers on SEGs probably won’t be enough.

–M.L.

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