You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: there has never been a better time to be an independent/low-budget/guerrilla videographer than now. Increased competition in both the video hardware and software industry means you get a lot more power for a lot less money compared to a year ago, and a lot more choices, too. But that makes buying a bit more work. This is why we have put together this buyer’s guide of computer video products: to help you make informed purchase decisions that can help you achieve your video goals.
As usual, Videomaker has scoured the globe for the hottest new equipment, fresh out of the labs and hot off the conveyer belts, and has organized the findings into an easy-to-read grid. Let’s begin with a little background on each of the categories.
If you doubt the plausibility of using a laptop as a powerful editing tool, consider that moviegoers are paying over $9 to see Tarnation, which was edited entirely on a laptop. Editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) cut the initial versions of Cold Mountain on one in Romania. And NBC news has been using portable editing suite solutions since 2001.
A "turnkey" editing laptop comes with all the hardware and software you need to edit digital video. You simply turn the key (or in this case, press the "on" button) and you have all the power and technology you need to cut the next version of Spy Kids. These systems are not as powerful as their dual 3.2GHz desktop cousins are, but the power gap is quickly narrowing. It’s hard to resist the appeal of being totally portable. These briefcase turnkey systems are starting at less than $1,000. Add to this internal DVD burners and S-video out for hooking up to a television or projector, and you have one less excuse for hitting the road to edit or show your work.
Although a blender or toaster could help you feed yourself through the long hours of post-production, these are not the appliances we are talking about. Appliances in the video-editing world are turnkey, PC-free, all-in-one editing solutions. Their main advantage is they do one thing and do it well–edit video–without the many problems that arise because your PC also runs word processors, Internet browsers, games, music applications, etc. No chance of an Internet worm shutting you down hours before deadline, or your MP3 library hogging your entire hard drive. Their strength is also their main limitation: they only edit, so you have to buy a computer to do the rest. It’s a matter of preference (and pocketbook).
Just about any computer you buy today will let you capture your digital video and audio via FireWire. But what if you want to capture something from the analog world? Before reaching for your credit card, check to see if your digital camera has "pass through" which enables analog devices to be run through the camera to be digitized. If it doesn’t, you’ll need a video capture device. Check the grid for the one that is right for you.
Editing programs, along with the invention of consumer DV camcorders with FireWire hardware, are the backbone of the video revolution. The ability to capture video, randomly access and manipulate your footage and effortlessly export to tape, burn to DVD or save as a file, all on a machine that you can lift with one hand, has propelled media making into the 21st century.
When looking for the right editor, start with those programs that will work with your operating system and then consider your skill and budget. If you’re just starting out, a sub-$100 (or even free) editor program would probably be best for your needs and level of experience. iMovie is free for Apple users, and Windows Movie Maker is free for those running Windows XP. Adobe Premiere Elements ($99) and Ulead Media Studio Pro ($100) are powerful options for PC people working on a budget. If you’re ready for full-featured professional editing power, you’re probably looking at the $600 – $1200 range, where most of the professional video editing packages live.
Apple’s Final Cut Pro ($999) has taken the editing world by storm. Unlike Apple’s iPod, though, Final Cut Pro is for Apple computers only. Two other mainstays in the higher-end prosumer NLE world are Avid Xpress DV ($895) and Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 ($699). Close on their heels is the impressive Sony Pictures Digital Vegas 5 ($700).
"Try before you buy" is a good idea but new editing systems can be intimidating. Do you know anyone who edits? Is there a community college or university near by with a video program? Sit next to someone while they edit for an hour or two and see how the software works. Also, check out the video tours or trial versions that most products have on their company’s Web sites.
Audio Editing Software
Although many, if not all, NLE packages come with the capacity to edit audio to some degree, dedicated audio editing software will take you much further. Probably the most important consideration in committing to a piece of audio software (after making sure it works with your operating system) is the program’s interface. Most programs will let you sample free demo versions that you can download from the company’s Web site.
Other considerations include recording, mixing, looping and waveform editing (assuming you want these features). Real-time effects will speed up your creations and will impress clients and collaborators. If you’re a musician and you want to work with MIDI composing, make sure the software can handle this. Also check to see whether your computer has the inputs and outputs to match the software’s needs. Some products (usually the higher priced packages) come with breakout box hardware for professional interactivity (a breakout box is a piece of hardware that connects to your computer, usually through FireWire or USB, which accepts inputs not already included with your computer such as XLR microphone inputs).
From the relatively easy-to-use and easy-to-afford Audacity (free), to the content-rich (read "steep learning-curve") industry standard Pro Tools (many products, ranging in price from free to many thousands of dollars), there is sure to be an option for every skill level and fiscal ability.
Compositing and SFX Software
So you’re going to try to remake The Hobbit behind Peter Jackson’s back while he’s busy shooting and editing the remake of King Kong. Well, you’re going to need compositing and SFX software. Adobe After Effects 6.5 ($699 standard, $999 pro) has had a good hold on this market for some time on the prosumer level. Boris FX 7 ($595) has its loyal devotees. Other competitive options are Canopus Xplode Professional 4.0 ($399), Pinnacle Commotion Pro 4.1 ($500) or the industry favorite Discreet Combustion 3 ($995). A new kid on the block, Apple’s Motion ($299), is starting to make waves, too.
Compositing and SFX applications will render quicker (and keep you from tearing out your hair) if you have a fast CPU, a good amount of RAM and a graphics card on steroids. This is where a desktop dual-processor machine would come in handy.
Dynamic titles, both in your video and on your DVDs, can make your work really stand out. It can make the difference that wins you that first prize in the film festival, or places you above the competition for a job. Like audio, most edit systems come bundled with some sort of titling capacity but not every editor has the time to create eye-catching, jaw-dropping text. Stand-alone titlers are chock full of pre-built font surfaces (front face, bevel, sides, etc.) and animations.
Make sure the titler you are looking to purchase integrates with the editing or DVD software you are using. Also find out whether the title software maker (or a third party) offers a library of plug-ins. You will want expansion options once you run through everything the initial software has.
Hollywood, Take Heed
When purchasing a turnkey laptop or appliance, the general rule is: more powerful is better. Before buying software, check that the program’s system requirements comply with your computer, and spend some time test-driving the demo versions from the company’s Web sites.
Competition in all of these categories is stiff, which is good news for you. It may take more time for research and testing to make the best choice, but you will come out with a hardware and software package that ten years ago would only have existed in multi-million-dollar post-production studios, and that twenty years ago seemed like science fiction.
Now you’ve got the tools to take on Hollywood or National Geographic Television, and you don’t have to move to Los Angeles or Washington DC. Happy Post.
Morgan Paar’s last video endeavor found him editing on his laptop in the cabin of a ship that took him to fifteen ports in Asia, Africa, Europe and the US.