Review: Pinnacle Studio 8
Posted Aug 12, 2003

Pinnacle Systems' Studio 8 features the extraordinary accessibility, versatility, and powerful functionality to avail even the most mossbacked non-initiate of the wonders of DV editing and DVD authoring. What's more, it does so in a way that no other "consumer" tool—in terms of ease-of-use, channel, and price ($99)—on the market today does, by integrating DVD authoring directly into the Video Timeline. It's also sophisticated enough to serve corporate projects, and much of its palette of preset templates are clearly designed to play in the corporate space. EDITOR'S CHOICE

In the most misspent summers of my mostly well-spent youth, I worked at a New Hampshire resort (the kind New Englanders call a "camp") that backed up to a mountain called Mt. Pinnacle. The name always struck me as a tad pretentious—tall for a hill, maybe, Mt. Pinnacle wasn't much of a mountain, its pinnacle maybe 1500 feet from sea level if that. All in all about an hour's climb, in a state boasting some of the most majestic peaks on the eastern seaboard (among them the White Mountains' famed "Presidential Range"). In any realistic New Hampshire topographical map, our own Mt. Pinnacle would appear little more than a stump.

On the other hand, once you were up there, you had a great view of those White Mountains to the east, and the Upper Connecticut River Valley and Vermont's Green Mountains to the west. And with "The Pinnacle" such an unchallenging climb, anybody large or small, underage to infirm, could "bag a peak" there, as the mountaineering types say, which made that "Pinnacle" moniker not so much pretentious as democratic. Plus, they say it was also an uncommonly easy mountain to find your way back down in the dead of night after a six-pack of Schaefer, though like any 18-year old working a minimum-wage summer job in the sticks, I couldn't confirm something like that.

In bringing the mountaintop to anyone who'd mosey up it, Mt. Pinnacle seems rather analogous to Pinnacle Systems' Studio 8, which features the extraordinary accessibility, versatility, and powerful functionality to avail even the most mossbacked non-initiate of the wonders of DV editing and DVD authoring. What's more, it does so in a way that no other "consumer" tool—in terms of ease-of-use, channel, and price ($99)—on the market today does, by integrating DVD authoring directly into the Video Timeline. Just compare Studio 8 to the abundance of tools that approximate this capability by allowing video content to be exported to and from a discrete DVD authoring tool and you'll see the difference.

It's functionally empowering and philosophically satisfying to see Pinnacle taking Studio in this direction, as well as suffusing the product with pro-style capabilities (as opposed to the gaudy bells-and-whistles, cheesy effects, and so forth that abound in other entry-level video tools and help make home-made digital video projects look as samey as those doppelganging wonders of mid-'80s desktop publishing, all boasting that "unique" Pagemaker look).

For all of Pinnacle's corporate-level qualifications, I tested it on the archetypal amateur video project: capturing, editing, and authoring my wedding video to DVD. Given what I know about the predilections and expectations of corporate video types, I'd say I unearthed in Studio 8 a great deal of what they'd be looking for in a video editing/DVD authoring solution, and for a great many straightforward corporate projects, a good deal more. In fact, the only thing holding me back from doing business-worthy work on my project was shortcomings of the source video—more specifically, the choppy audio of several segments, including those recorded outside—and Pinnacle's ability to replace the captured soundtrack in some of those segments with alternate audio material placed directly in the Video Timeline more than compensated for my project's audio shortcomings. (Plus, I could have used the "voice-over" tool to reunite the cast and re-record the quieter parts if I'd so chosen.) But the omnipresent DV format makes every videographer equal in the way Sam Colt made every frontiersman equal in the old west; you just need to know how to shoot. And even if you don't know what you're doing when it comes to editing, Studio 8 is so intuitive and fun to use it'll have you on target in no time.

Captured by the Game
Studio 8 offers three capture modes: SmartCapture, which reduces video filesize (and quality) so users can preview their entire source tape before choosing which segments they'll want to capture at full DV quality for editing; full-quality DV capture, which maintains the resolution of the source tape and requires about 13.5GB of hard drive space per hour of video captured; and MPEG capture, which captures DV video and converts it to MPEG for editing in VCD or DVD-ready format. Pinnacle claims on-the-fly real-time capture and conversion with 2gHz-plus PCs; because my testing was done on a 1.5gHz model, I didn't test this feature. Later in the process, DV video was rendered to full-quality MPEG-2 at roughly six minutes of rendering per minute of video (the ratio tightened to 3:1 in lower-quality Draft mode).

Using an Adaptec DuoConnect FireWire card, I captured roughly 1:20 of video in full-resolution DV format in real-time from a Sony MiniDV camera. I captured the same video using various software tools for comparison and Studio 8's capture was equal to or better than—audio and video—all the other tools used. With automatic scene detection on, only in a few instances (one uninterrupted 25-minute stretch comes to mind) did I need to stop the capture manually to prevent Studio 8 from stopping the capture without a scene change to prevent the captured file from exceeding the maximum 4GB file size. All video was captured to a Que! M3 60GB FireWire hard drive connected via the same 1394 bus.

Studio 8 uses a pleasant GUI for Capture, as with all three major functions accessible through the main user interface: Capture, Edit, and Make Movie. To capture video, simply connect your camcorder, click on Capture, choose Capture mode, pick a destination folder, and click Start Capture. Studio 8 indicates how much space (in minutes) you have for video in your selected format on your destination drive. After you move on to the Edit window, Studio 8 will show you an album of all your captured clips for integration into your project.

It's All in the Editing
Capturing the video is essentially the wood-chopping part of the video production process. It's essential, but it's basically an internal function that doesn't really involve the user as do the more exciting parts of Studio 8. Most of the action happens in Edit mode.

Edit mode has three Views: Storyboard, Timeline, and Edit List. Storyboard is the default format, and it's a good place to start for shallow-end functions, like dropping in your scenes, inserting transitions to keep everything flowing smoothly, and getting a general idea of what's in your project so far. As in Timeline and Edit List, you have access to the Preview window in Storyboard mode, so you can see what's in your clips, as well as checking out transitions and such. And it's a nice clean view for seeing what's between the clips, as things can get a tad tight in the Timeline after a while.

Several key tools are accessed on the left side of the Edit window (in all three Views). Reading from top to bottom, these include Show Videos, for accessing source clips; Show Transitions, for choosing among a rich palette of 126 transition types (including a funky set from Alpha Magic), which are demonstrated, forward and reverse, in the Preview window; Show Titles, for custom or template-based title creation; Show Photos and Frame Grabs, for manipulation and placement of digital images from the user's hard drive or screens grabbed from the source video using Studio 8; Show Sound Effects for accessing Studio 8's preset aural palette (contained, along with templates on the "Content" disc that complements the main application CD); and Show Menus, for accessing preset Menu templates designed for use in DVD creation.

Just above the view area are two even more essential components of the Studio 8 editing process: a camcorder symbol, which opens the Video Toolbox; and a stereo speaker symbol, which takes you to the Audio Toolbox. You'll work most effectively with these toolboxes in the Timeline view, where you'll have the clearest picture of all the elements of your project, where they fit in relation to one another, and how you can align them to make them work.

The primary purpose of the Video Toolbox is to trim and select the portion of your video clip to place in the Timeline at a specific spot. By simply dragging the video marker across the scrollbar in the Toolbox window, you can select the start and endpoint for your video clip. For pinpoint accuracy, you use the clock in the middle of the window, adjusting arrows up and down for the fractions of a second you need to trim the clip to the right size. The clip can then be previewed in the Preview window without any time-consuming rendering, which is a huge advantage. This is all remarkably intuitive—I had yet to crack Pinnacle's "Guide to Movie Making" (which is thorough and well-wrought) at this point and was maneuvering easily and effectively through this process. Using the left-hand panel of the Video Toolbox (much as in the main Edit window), you can make additional adjustments to playback speed and color; grab a screen for later use as a background or menu button; or insert a title overlay.

The Audio Toolbox works in a similar fashion. Studio 8 gives you the option of adding a second soundtrack to your video, either to complement the existing soundtrack or to replace it with the original soundtrack muted. This proved an essential feature in my project as the third source tape had virtually no audio to go with the video footage recorded on the tape. Using the Audio Toolbox, I was able to overlay music from CDs, edited to fit the video footage I had or chose to use with it. I simply inserted the CD as needed, instructed Studio 8 to capture the audio, clicked "Add to Movie," and my video clip had a new soundtrack.

Between the Lines

What you can do with additional soundtrack material once it's captured demonstrates the true power of Studio 8's Timeline view. When you first add your video clips to the Timeline, you'll see a view with two horizontal segments filled in: one adjacent to a camcorder icon, representing the primary video, and the other adjacent to the speaker icon, representing the primary audio. Of course you can manipulate what's in the video track by editing and transitioning your video clips as desired. With the audio track, you have two ways of controlling the volume: by clicking the audio icon higher on the screen (this is much easier to understand visually than in words), and adjusting volume in the original audio, effects, or music track; or by manually dragging the volume line up or down in the Timeline display. In this way you can also engineer fade-outs, fade-ins, and the like.

Lower in the Timeline view, in the bottom line adjacent to the clef symbol, you can also adjust the volume, fade, and time-align the placement of your music track, and get a visual representation of how well it's synchronized with the video clip or clips to which it corresponds. This is particularly important if you're doing a music video-type project with lots of quick cuts and transitions that end up slightly altering the Video Timeline because you can still adjust your music track to make sure everything is where it should be, with edits on the beat and what-not.

The multiple levels of the Timeline view also enable title creation and insertion and the DVD authoring capabilities that are the hallmark of this version of Pinnacle Studio. The tallest, middle line of the Timeline set up is where the title screens you create get placed, and you can see exactly where they coincide with your video clips. You can also adjust the duration of your title in the Title Edit screen (default is four seconds).

DVD authoring happens in the top section of the Timeline, which is a track reserved for "menus, chapter marks, and returns." Menu design is simple and extremely straightforward.

Ordering the Menu
DVD menus can be created in two ways: using preset templates or starting from scratch. Pinnacle supplies quite a palette of menu templates, encompassing the range of applications they see Studio serving: personal events, like weddings, birthdays, or soccer games; and a range of corporate and business presentation items like "From the Boardroom," "Annual Report," "Meeting Agenda," and the like. Clearly, just about everywhere DVD-Video goes except Hollywood movies and applications that push the interactivity envelope are fair game for Studio 8, at least in Pinnacle's collective mind. Granted, you don't get color correction, multiple storyboards and timelines, real-time rendering, 3D effects and keyframes, as in higher-end tools like Avid's XpressDV and Pinnacle's own Edition, but the vast number of would-be video editors and DVD authors that current consumer PC speeds and cheap DVD recorders have brought into the game aren't looking for that sort of thing, and it's not as if you get all those things from any single tool in any environment, much less a $99 piece of software.

Go into "Edit Menu" knowing what you want, number of chapters and so forth, and this part will go fast. Click on the "Button" icon (a finger pointing to a button) and you'll see the range of button styles in Studio's repertoire. You're not restricted to these visually, but you'll need to use them as initial placeholders to get your menu started.

Things can get a little tricky here—Studio 8 is fairly unforgiving to users who second-guess their menu choices and button placements. Place your buttons out of sequence, and you'll never get them straightened out because Studio 8's internal number assignment will never align with yours, no matter how much you mix and match after the fact. What's more, in early builds of Studio 8 (it seems to have been eradicated by 8.3), the program seemed to generate "phantom" buttons when users weren't entirely systematic in their button placement. Up at the top of the window, Studio 8 tells you how many buttons you have (e.g., "Editing menu with 6 buttons"); if that number is more than you can see, you're in trouble. Pull back one level, click the box next to C1 (next to the Edit Menu button), and this very handy tool will indicate where all your buttons are and the chapter numbers associated with them (pink boxes with "C1," "C2," etc. will appear over your buttons). If the numbers aren't where you want them, or there's a button with a question mark over it, start over. If all you've done is drop a bunch of buttons in the Edit Menu window, you've lost very little work. Once you've got all the buttons where they should be, then you can add the fancy stuff later.

That "fancy stuff" starts with the cactus or camcorder icon. The cactus will take you to preset backgrounds. Click on the camcorder and browse for your own stills and clips for backgrounds or button overlays; find the folder with your screen grabs, click on one, and all like files in that folder will appear in the window. Simply click on your chapter button and click on your screen grab or clip of choice, and it will appear over the button. Be sure you've selected "Normal Button" for any button for which you've selected a clip; if you leave it on the default, "Thumbnail," Studio 8 will automatically insert the opening frame or clip of the chapter (set later) where your button is. If you want a motion menu, make sure the filmstrip icon in the first menu screen is clicked on, then in Edit Menu, select "Thumbnail Button" for each button you want to use motion video, or just leave it on since it's the default. Once you've linked it to a chapter, it will run as much of the first scene of the chapter as possible within the time you've allotted for your menu.

For layout purposes, Studio 8 inserts a dotted-line rectangle on the menu (this doesn't actually appear during playback) to show you the boundaries of a "standard" 4:3 TV screen. To add text to your menu, click on the "T" on the bottom panel, then select fonts from your choices at the top of the screen, and styles and looks from the letters icon atop right-hand panel. In this manner, you can add titles, chapter names, and the like anywhere in the menu. You can also choose the duration of your menu (default is six seconds); this becomes more important when you're using motion menus or adding a soundtrack to your menu.

The real genius of Studio 8 becomes apparent at the next stage, when it's time to graft the DVD menu onto the video project you've edited. By all appearances, it's about the simplest element of the program, yet it's the one that currently sets it apart from anything even close to its price range, or billed as an "entry-level" DV editing tool. (It makes "entry-level," when applied to competing tools, seem like a euphemism for "kiddie-pool.")

With all your buttons set, and your chapter breakdown in mind, click OK and return to a Video Timeline view. (Your menu will still be visible in a smaller window on the left side of the screen, which chapter-button associations indicated if you have "Show Chapters" on.) Scroll to the clip and exact point within it where you want your chapter to begin. Click on the Chapter 1 button, then click on the curved arrow next to "Chapter Number," and Studio 8 will mark and set your first chapter. (You don't have to do this in sequence.) The chapter mark will then appear as C1 in the top bar of your Timeline, along with the designation of where your first menu is placed, indicated as "M1."

Once you're done setting chapter marks, click on DVD in the Preview window, and a facsimile of a DVD remote will replace the usual buttons in the Preview window. Preview your project, chapters and all, with the navigation controls in the DVD preview. Once the project is playing to your liking, you're ready to burn.

For the Record

As mentioned earlier, everything wasn't hunky dory in the first builds I saw of Studio 8. My project revealed some bugs in the software (or as marketing types like to call them, "undocumented features") that prevented me from burning my project to DVD. The development team reviewed my project and addressed the problem directly and effectively, and sent me version 8.3, which is by all appearances (and through all my testing) rock-solid and free of operational flaws. According to Pinnacle, version 8.3 is either shipping as Studio 8 as you read this, or immediately available as a patch on their Web site. Either way, users should have easy access to the version that earned this Editor's Choice.

To make a DVD, or output your project to other media, click Make Disc (the third choice atop the main window after Capture and Edit), and you'll find six choices: Tape, AVI, MPEG, Stream, Share, Disc. (Only DVD, within "Disc," will take advantage of any menus or chapters you've created.) AVI will render your project, currently a proprietary .stu file, into an AVI file that other programs should be able to work with. The only difficulty here, given the size of DV-quality AVIs, is keeping filesize under the 4GB maximum. MPEG renders and compresses the project to MPEG-1 or MPEG-2, with user-customizable (constant) bit rates available by clicking Settings. In Stream, you have two choices, Windows Media and RealVideo. Share uploads the file to Pinnacle's Web site for sharing with other Studio 8 users. Disc gives you three output choices—VideoCD, Super VideoCD, and DVD—and video quality ranges within each.

The real magic of course happens when you choose DVD. Here the disk-o-meter is especially important, since you can select just about any bit rate in the MPEG-2 range—roughly 3000 to 8000Kbps (or 3 to 8Mbps)—but you'll only be able to use the highest rates if your video is under an hour. (And you shouldn't use 8Mbps unless you're sure your DVD player can handle it--many consumer DVD players will choke and stutter on recordable DVDs with video encoded abive 7Mbps.)

You then select "Burn directly to disc" or "Create disc content but don't burn" (a third option for burning from a stored image appears when you have such an image), and you're off and, well, crawling, depending on your patience level. Studio 8 will have to render the video before it can burn. Its six-minutes-per-minute rendering speed on my 1.5gHz Pentium IV (Pinnacle promises higher speeds on faster machines) isn't any slower than the competition (no matter what the competition promises), but if you're burning an hour of video or more, you'll do well to start the rendering and go on home.

Once I got 8.3 running, my discs burned without a hitch on two DVD-R recorders and a DVD+RW, and played well on home DVD players from Madison to Manhattan and College Park to Cambridge. There's a certain satisfaction in getting some good video editing work done, and cranking out the discs that prove it, even if you owe your success more to the tools than your own talent. But not every mountain has to be steep or sky-high to be worth climbing, and when we're talking about editing and authoring software, I'll take a molehill-sized learning curve over Mt. Washington any day. Especially if the sights up top are just as satisfying.

(Pinnacle Systems, Inc.