Computer Editing: Breaking the Two-Gig Barrier

Has this ever happened to you? You’re working on your latest epic video creation. You’ve planned it out thoroughly, made beautiful storyboards, shot your footage, captured great audio and applied all your editing skills to create the video of your dreams. There it sits on your computer screen – a timeline full of beautiful little edits, waiting to be rendered. You hit the Render button, and leave the room to make a sandwich, eagerly anticipating the final viewing of your masterpiece.

When you get back, there’s a nasty little message waiting for you on your computer screen. It says your video has exceeded the 2-gigabyte (GB) limit, and your editing software stopped rendering at about nine minutes of finished footage. You can’t believe your eyes. Despair, anguish and rage all set in simultaneously. What can you do to save your beautiful project?

Luckily, you’re not the first person this has ever happened to, and there are a number of solutions to the problem. While one solution will take you back to before the drawing board, requiring a reinstall (and perhaps an upgrade) of your computer’s operating system, there are some techniques you can use to finish that project as it stands. By the end of this article, you’ll have the knowledge you need to break the 2GB barrier and create video projects that are limited only by the size of your imagination.

The Problem

The maximum size that a video file can attain is the function of three things: the way the storage medium (hard disk, etc.) is formatted, the operating system your computer uses, and the types of video files (AVI 2.0, QuickTime 4.0, etc.) your editing software uses.

1. Formatting. When computer scientists first began designing the home desktop computer, they didn’t foresee the need for huge amounts of storage space. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that home computers boasted 100MB hard drives, if they had hard drives at all. (Anybody out there recall using 360KB floppies, back in the day? These had about enough room to store three frames of DV video.)

As the need for more and more storage space drove hard drives to bigger and bigger capacities, computer files began to get larger and larger. The need to create even bigger digital files became clear as computer programs began to include multimedia elements audio, animations, short video clips, images, etc. To deal with these issues, operating systems needed a new file system, one that was capable of creating huge files. In the Windows world, the newer file system was called FAT 32 (HFS Plus for the Macintosh). FAT stands for File Allocation Table; the 32 refers to the fact that it is a 32-bit file system. For most applications, the 32-bit system was (and still is) adequate, as it allows for the creation of files up to 4GB (4 billion bytes) in size. Video editors, however, still find this insufficient; a 4GB file of DV footage will last only about 18 minutes enough for a commercial or other short work, but not enough for longer works, such as documentaries, narratives and how-to videos.

The solution was, of course, to create new file systems that can handle larger files. In the Windows world, the new file system is called NTFS (NT File System); the Macintosh equivalent is UFS (Unix File System), which can be used under OS X. With these file systems, you can create very large files, arguably larger than anyone will ever need. Using DV video under NTFS, you could theoretically create a single video file of around 150,000 years in length. Of course, we may eventually wish to shoot all our videos uncompressed at IMAX resolution.

2. Operating System. The reason the operating system (OS) comes into play is simple. Each OS can make use of only a select few file systems, and often, only one. Thus, Windows 98 users must remain content with FAT 32, while users of NT, 2000 or XP have the option to use FAT 32 or NTFS. This boils down to a simple set of rules: if you’re in the Windows world, use only NT, Windows 2000 or XP; in the Mac environment, use OS 9.2 or OS X. Only these operating systems (save Linux) in the home computer market can handle the huge files you need for longer videos.

3. Video Software. Finally, it’s necessary to make use of a video standard that supports huge files. In the Windows world, AVI 1.0 is only capable of handling 2GB files (or, theoretically, 4GB files, if certain programming tricks are used). This is because AVI 1.0 uses a 32-bit numbering system (2^32) to store numbers, resulting in a theoretical range of -2 billion to +2 billion (a 4GB range). Open DML AVIs on the other hand, uses 64-bit numbers, which gives a range of 18 billion gigabytes of information. QuickTime 4.0 also uses 64-bit numbers (2^64).

Let’s Talk Solutions

OK, we’ve now shared all this complicated information on the topic of file-size limits, but you still need a solution for your hour-long DV masterpiece, right? Unfortunately, the best solution is a bit drastic, and the easiest solution can be quite frustrating. Nonetheless, we recommend that all computer video editors implement the best (drastic) solution as soon as time and budget allow; it’s the true solution to the problem.

1. Drastic: Upgrade your OS. Yes, that’s right. Go out and get your hands on a copy of Windows NT, 2000 or XP – or computer. This will solve the problem once and for all. Be aware, when you upgrade, you’ll have to reformat your drives using one of the new file systems. When you prepare to format, the software will prompt you to choose the file system you want to use. This will wipe out all existing data on your computer, so be sure to back-up any files you don’t want to lose. This won’t do anything for you if you have a project sitting on your computer right now; it will require that you start your editing over completely from scratch once you install the new operating system.

A word of warning: before you make this choice, make sure the new operating system you’re about to install supports your video editing software. Performing this OS upgrade may require purchasing an upgrade for your existing software.

2. Not so drastic but frustrating: Complete your work in 2GB pieces. Yes, that’s right, break down your project into bite-size chunks, complete each piece in sequence, then assemble the whole thing piece by piece as you go.

This solution requires lots of preplanning; once you finish that first nine-minute piece of DV video and start on the second segment, it’ll be quite difficult to go back later and make changes.

As you complete each piece of your video, you can perform a simple cut edit to bump the pieces together as you go. The easiest way to do this is to select a portion of your video that fades to black silence. This is a handy place to pause the tape and start recording the next finished segment from the computer. Be careful, though. It’s an easy edit to make, but a mistake at this point can be catastrophic, requiring you to go back and edit your earlier segments again.

If your video project has no obvious fades to black to work with, choose a segment that’s silent for several seconds; this will avoid problems with matching audio, which may require a later audio dub edit in your VCR. When printing to tape using DV, you can often seamlessly send a series of files out to your camcorder.

3. Avoid Rendering. Perhaps the best solution is to avoid rendering altogether. A recent trend with real-time hardware systems and, to a lesser extent, software, is timeline playback. If your setup supports this (and not all do), you may never have to render again, which not only solves the 2GB dilemma, but it will also save you plenty of time and trouble.

File Size Limits – The Future is Bright

One of the most frustrating things about the world of home computers is that this year’s hot item is often next year’s garbage. What we all love and recommend today will likely be obsolete tomorrow. That said, it’s a safe bet that the current file systems will carry us far into the future. Who, indeed, will need to store single video files larger than 18 billion gigabytes?

Then again, it’s quite surprising to go back just 20 years and see what industry experts said about these issues back when home computers were in their infancy. The numbers tossed around, in terms of file sizes and hard disk capacities, pale in comparison with today’s realities.

Who can foresee what new data-hungry audio-visual technologies we’ll devise in the years to come? For the moment, however, we can be content with our existing DV and Digital8 technologies and make files as large as our hard drives and operating systems will allow.

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