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Taking Stock of Digital Video


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 02 December 2003

I remember the first time I used a computer to edit a video. It was early 1996, a year before the release of RealVideo 1.0.

I was making a short documentary, but I didn't have a capture card on my own computer. This was before everyone was using DV, where you simply pipe the footage down a wire from cam to computer.

So I travelled an hour by bus from my house in Edinburgh to a friend's home to use his new-fangled video capture card. John, a cameraman who worked for Reuters, had made the leap in the dark and forked out 800 quid for one.

Trouble was, neither of us could get his card (a Miro DC20) and the editing program, a lite version of Adobe Premiere, to work properly. Over a period of a couple of weeks, I made more trips than I care to remember out there and we spent many frustrating hours trying to get things running. It's all part of the learning process we told ourselves, refusing to let the slow progress dampen our enthusiasm.

Eventually, we managed to get the hardware and the software speaking to each other. We watched the computer screen in awe as the stuttering footage flowed in. We tried to overlook the fact that the footage was grainy, jerky and in a matchbox-sized window - standard CD-Rom quality at the time in other words.

It also had a purplish hue - no matter how we changed the settings it wouldn't go away. What should have been black was deep purple. Miro technical support gave us the usual advice - try new drivers, try reinstalling the card, try reinstalling the program, and so on. All to no avail. No wonder Miro was taken over by Pinnacle Systems, we thought. I don't think John ever did work out the problem with the unwanted tinge.

Still, I was able to get all the footage I wanted for my short documentary, transfer it to my SyQuest portable disc drive and take it back home to edit on my Pentium 133.

Looking back, John and I didn't know nearly enough about computers. These machines were anaemic compared to today's entry-level power horses and you really needed to arm yourself with knowledge about how you could push the technology to the max, or you lived to regret it.

Even editing relatively small video files was a big strain on my system, with its paltry 64MB of RAM, when I began the editing process back at my own place. I endured extremes of elation and much tearing-of-hair frustration as my computer groaned and crashed with alarming frequency. Hours dissolved into days until, eventually, I eked out my first digital video for CD-Rom.

They say you never forget your first one. It's true: I never want to go through that again.

Fortunately, so much about digital video has changed for the better. It's funny to think that the kind of money we spent back then would buy us a system that we could edit a feature-length film on. Maybe we should have waited?

On the other hand, after that early experience of wringing video out of an unwilling computer, it's a joy to be able muck about with quick-and-dirty low res flicks these days.

Broadband and advances in video compression, mean that you can fire off your clips around the web. You don't need a capture card, and you don't even need a camcorder if you have a digital stills camera that takes video - assuming you don't plan on doing more than low res flicks.

It's just a matter of point, shoot, feed in via USB to the computer and drag and drop editing. It takes minutes, where before it took (me) days, to have a clip ready just for a CD-Rom.

True, there are still plenty of things that can go wrong. There's a bewildering array of incompatible formats that prevent people from sharing video clips, and in spite of astonishing advances in compression, video is still a supreme bandwidth hog.

But I can't complain. We are light years away from 1996.

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