Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Veni, Vidi, Video

September 2000

By Mike Gould

Making a promotional or training video was once the domain of the well-heeled production company; you needed expensive cameras, lighting rigs, a skilled crew, actors, writers, caterers, and a guy wearing a beret yelling "Quiet on the set" from a directors chair. But that was life in the 20th century; here in the technical vastness of the 21st century, things are a bit easier and a whole lot cheaper.

Desktop Video
To get into this, you need: a camcorder (preferably digital), a special wire, some software, and a computer. You shoot your footage, hook up the wire between camcorder and computer, download the footage into the computer, and edit it with the software. Editing involves putting the scenes in order, putting transitions between them, adding titles, and adding sound and special effects. Then you transfer your masterpiece back to a new tape in the camera, and send it to a tape duplicating company or Gramma, depending on whether this is for business or fun.

I am a Camera
Video cameras come in 2 flavors these days, analog and digital. Analog formats have names like HI-8 and VHS. As analog is sooo 90's, we'll focus on digital here. In the digital camcorder world, the magic letters are MiniDV: this is a digital format based on a tape cartridge that is about half the size of an audio cassette. Each tape holds up to 90 minutes of video, as well as stereo sound. The cameras aren't a lot bigger; I have been working with an associate's Sony DCR-TRV900, a tiny masterpiece purchased for around $1900. You can spend a lot less, starting at around $700, and you can spend a lot more: if we had the budget, we would have bought the Canon GL1 at around $2500. The point is, you can shoot a pretty respectable video with a camera costing a lot less than an arm and a leg. (And if you have a spare arm or leg sitting around, you can get a Really, Really Good One.)

Wires on Fire
To be fully buzzword-compliant, your camera must have FireWire. This is a high speed serial connector you need to have on your camera so that it can send its digital goodness to your computer at the fastest rate possible. An hour of digital video can take up to 12G of storage; that's 12 thousand Megabytes. You need a big pipe to get this much data into your computer, and that's what FireWire does best. Sony, miffed because they didn't invent it (Apple Computer did) calls FireWire "iLINK", but it's the same thing.

It takes a Computer
Now you need something to plug your FireWire cable into. You can buy a FireWire card for your PC, or you can buy a G4 Mac, which has FireWire built in. Certain iMacs and PowerBooks also have native FireWire. The next thing you need is lots of RAM; alert readers will recall my discussion of digital still cameras - remember the part about needing at least 64M for digital photography? Well, double or triple that for video. We're still dealing with pictures here, only now the pictures are jumping around and we need to keep track of each little hop and skip. You need a lot of chip RAM, but you need a metric boatload in terms of storage; a 10G drive is minimal here, and much more is recommended. The good news is that storage is cheap; I just bought a 60G ATA/66 drive for $229! You also don't need fancy SCSI drives; the garden-variety ATA/33 jobbies will do just fine.

Software of the Stars
Once you have your camera, wires, and computer together, you will need some software to run the show. Used to be you would spend $100K on an Avid system, which bundled a fancy computer with powerful software and a big hard drive array. These systems are still viable, and are found at a lot of TV stations and other production houses, in the hands of trained professionals. But like most technology, the cost of doing this sort of editing is dropping fast. For my money, Apple leads the way with its iMovie and Final Cut Pro software. iMovie is free (!) and comes bundled with all the recent FireWire-enabled iMacs. You shoot your shots, plug into your iMac, shove your mouse around and bingo, you are the Cecil B. DeMegabyte of the neighborhood. iMovie's feature set is not as full as a truly professional editing system, but the quality of video is definitely top-notch. We are training teachers in this technology at the UM School of Education. At the high end ($1000), there is Final Cut Pro, which is what I am getting into in a big way. Storage constraints on this page prevent me from raving about this particular software, but suffice it to say Avid is getting a run for its money. There are places bundling a digital camcorder and an iMac together for $2K.

Call a Pro
Back to the intro at the top of the page: you now don't need to hire all the above to make a training or promo video; you can do it yourself somewhat easily and cheaply. But do you really want to? Consider that the most important part of the system is the trained eye behind the camera; a seasoned pro is going to make a better video than an amateur, no matter how well equipped. Remember back when desktop publishing came out and everything looked like a ransom note? I foresee a similar learning curve for those getting into desktop video. The good news is that the pros are now using this technology, and hopefully passing on the equipment savings to you. And for sending home movies to Gramma, iMovie can't be beat.

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