Edit Suite: Nonlinear Editing: 10 Tips for Success

Like most computer-based activities, nonlinear editing delivers a rich set of opportunities, frustrations, and peculiarities, all of which generate a gaggle of ad-lib tactics for dealing with them. A complete collection of nonlinear tricks would include obscure secrets and arcane workarounds, but the fundamental strategies are based on simple common sense.

So without further ado, here’s a look at 10 basic tips for success in nonlinear editing.

1: Invest in the Best

Or if you can’t afford the best, invest in the pretty darn good. Mortgage the dog if you have to, but scrape up enough green to buy a competent editing system.

This isn’t the place to talk hardware specifics, but in general, you should pay as much as you possibly can (plus maybe 20% more that you can’t) for:

  • a brawny chip, board, and power supply–like a Pentium II 450 setup;
  • cavernous storage with lightning throughput (which means an entirely separate SCSI or Ultra-SCSI drive to be used solely for video capture);
  • beaucoup RAM, like 64-128 MB at least;
  • a premium display card for the computer monitor.

Most importantly, invest in the best video capture card you can afford. Under-$1000 cards are available, and will work well if you don’t mind the occasional frustration that comes with a crashed system; however, if you have the funds, consider purchasing a product one step up from this level. The increase in reliability will be well worth the investment.

2: Dedicate the System to Video

Why not just upgrade the system you probably own already? Because you can’t run your dental group accounting package on the same machine without creating internal conflicts that will drive your computer into myocardial infarctions and similarly lethal stuff.

So if you don’t want to hang your system every 20 minutes, set it up from scratch as a dedicated editing tool and play Quake II on your daughter’s machine.

3: Match Software to System

Most video capture cards come bundled with editing software like Adobe Premiere or an Avid package or Ulead’s MediaStudio, and these programs all let you specify the technical characteristics of your programs.

In general, the higher the quality of each and every setting (such as compression, frame rate and image size), the more demands it makes on your system. Push your computer too hard and you’ll see everything from jagged lines to dropped frames to fuzzy images to picture snow. So it’s worth a lot of patient experimentation to determine which combination of settings works best for you.

And while you’re tweaking software, don’t forget all the other packages that mysteriously appear when you install operating systems (like Windows 98) and editing packages and audio cards. Which ones you use with which other ones can become a complicated question, as you’ll discover when you digitize incoming audio with your video card, but audition it through speakers attached to your computer’s sound card.

4: Do Your Housekeeping

Disk operating systems strew data like a teenager dropping clothes in his room, and a hard drive can quickly resemble, well, a teenager’s room. Why should you care? Because the more fragmented and dispersed the data stored on a hard drive, the longer it takes to find and assemble it for use.

Fragmented data quickly reduces hard drive speed, and the three most important aspects of a video editing system are speed, speed, and speed. To keep data throughput as fast as possible, defragment your drive even if the system says you don’t yet need to. To remind myself to perform hard disk housekeeping, I’ve placed a shortcut to the defragmenter utility right on my desktop, where it stares at me accusingly.


5: Update Your Software

Sophisticated computer apps are so complex nowadays that most are released with serious bugs. To address this problem (without quite admitting it) many manufacturers maintain web sites that offer free patches, kludges and other bandaids for doctoring software that should have worked right when you bought it.

In addition, vendors like Microsoft are always hustling improved, whiter, brighter versions of video-related utilities (like DirectX which is headed for version 38.2 or something and with no end in sight).

Finally, makers of cards, drives, and just about every other computer component are always updating drivers, the software that makes them work properly in your system. Usually, the latest drivers work better than older ones, so you should replace your drivers when you can.

For these reasons, make it a habit to trawl the Web sites of every vendor who has contributed hardware or software to your system, looking for updates and improvements. Even when they can’t offer fixes, they will usually print tech notes that suggest workarounds for you to try.

6: Manage Files Intelligently

A lack of storage space is always a problem with huge video files, so here are some suggestions for controlling your hard disk inventory.

First, digitize only selected takes. Instead of storing every blessed foot of tape, choose just the best one or two versions of each shot. To conserve even more space, preview each newly digitized shot and trim the fat off its head and foot before saving it to the hard disk.

Next, be smart about naming shots. No matter what Microsoft claims, keep the shot names to eight characters, max. Longer names hang up some software.

But don’t attempt to describe the action. When the shot is fresh in your mind, CPSNZE2 may seem to describe the second take of the closeup in which Uncle Bob sneezes a tsunami across his raised coffee cup; but two weeks later it’ll be gibberish. It’s much better to file shots by slate name (like 27A2) and then identify their content by building a shot list. Set up as a simple database, a shot list is invaluable for serious editing, and some video capture software can create shot lists for you as you log and save your files.

7: Maximize Image Quality

As noted, you should set your quality levels to suit the abilities of your system; but within your limits, try to work at the best quality level available, even if you may not think you’ll need it.

For instance, digitizing at 320 by 240 pixels will usually equal the resolution of regular VHS systems, so it might seem a waste of space to store files at 640 by 480 if VHS is your eventual storage level.

But if you use even simple digital effects, the higher quality image is less subject to artifacts and jagged lines. For this reason, it might be worth the space to work at the higher resolution and then step down to VHS level only when outputting the finished program to tape.


8: Use Filters and Effects Sparingly

Unless you have a system fast enough for the Bonneville Salt Flats, or one that performs real-time transitions, rendering composite images for effects and transitions can be time-consuming. Even worse, compositing introduces endless opportunities for dropping frames, adding noise, and turning lines into jaggies.

So even if your software offers a gazillion special filters and effects, use them judiciously. You’ll cut down your editing overhead time, improve overall image quality, and avoid amateurish programs peppered with gee-whiz effects inserted solely because they’re available.

9: Build Modular Programs

Though the latest software can handle files bigger than two gigabytes, it’s still a good idea to pre-plan your digital shows in modules lasting anywhere from one to maybe five minutes. That way, you can keep ample space available by digitizing, editing, and outputting successive sections, before clearing out work files and moving on.

If you have enough space, you can keep the final digital version of each section on the drive until the show is complete. If you need to revise anything later, it’s easy to re-digitize just the shots you need to make the changes.

Here’s a tip for outputting segments: always divide modules at straight cuts; that way you can butt sections together on the output medium.

10: Create Quality Archives

And what medium might that be? The best possible, of course. If you’re lucky enough to have a DV camera, set up your system to work entirely with digital files, and output the result back to the camcorder. No magnetic recording lasts indefinitely; but since you can copy digital video without generation loss, duping your master tape every few years will make your program immortal.

I’m not that lucky in my media arts classroom; but I do have an elderly 3/4-inch U-matic VCR that was donated to the school for a tax write-off. Though it doesn’t offer digital quality, the archival master tapes I record on it from analog computer output are better than I could get with Hi8 or S-VHS formats.

A Bonus Tip

Finally, remember the instruction sheet wisdom quoted in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "Assembly of Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind." So does the setup, tuning, and troubleshooting of prosumer-level nonlinear editing systems. Being a zen master is not exactly a prerequisite, but it sure would help.

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