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Battle of the Software NLEs, Part 4: Slideshows, Rendering, and Conclusions
Posted Nov 14, 2005 Print Version     Page 1of 1

The success of the Ken Burns documentaries like The Civil War and Baseball—which were composed largely of still images animated via pan-and-zoom techniques—combined with the pervasiveness of digital cameras, makes high-quality slideshow production a must for all video editors. Slideshows with carefully orchestrated 2D motion have become the bread and butter of documentarians, especially those working with archival still images. For personal event videographers, photo montages are an important premium service to be able to offer; for video biographers and memorial videographers, pan-and-zoom slideshows are often the core of the product.

Many videographers use dedicated tools to produce their photo montages and slideshows. Two of the most popular are Canopus Imaginate 2 and StageTools MovingPicture Producer. MovingPicture is sold as both a standalone tool, like Imaginate, and as a plug-in for a range of NLEs. Both products offer pinpoint control of 2D movement within an image, as well as a variety of motion presets. Imaginate users can import a soundtrack and create an entire music slideshow within the application. Both products also offer a modicum of 3D capabilities, rotating images on the Z-axis and so forth. But to do a 3D zoom into a picture, passing foreground elements on the way, you'll need to move a bit further up the food chain; the most popular way is to import layered Photoshop documents into After Effects and create fly-throughs in your compositions there. These are dazzling techniques but well beyond the scope of most slideshows.

They're also beyond the scope of what you can accomplish with slideshow creation in our five tested NLEs, though each has capabilities that are worth a look before you go out and buy and learn additional applications. It's also worth noting that there's much more to slideshows than flashy moves (or intriguingly eerie ones, in the case of 3D fly-throughs); perhaps most important of all is how clear and stable an image appears when it's reconfigured to SD video dimensions and/or resolution and absorbed into a video stream. In these tests we're not concerned with automated pan-and-zoom, syncing slideshows to background music, and the like. We're interested specifically in how effectively they manipulate and process images. Here we discuss the editing interfaces offered by our five editors and the steps necessary to produce high-quality, flicker-free output.

Though the 2D motion controls used for pan-and-zoom control are the same controls we used to manipulate our HDV files, here we take a slideshow-centric view of them. Pluses include the ability to grab and move the image directly, which is faster and more accurate than adjusting by changing X/Y coordinates. Some editors include rotation controls in the 2D interface, adding to creative possibilities, and let you create separate keyframes for different parameters like size or position, which aids precision and simplifies more complicated effects. To perform the tests below, we scoured our photo database for high-resolution images that gave editors fits when it came to flicker. We settled on two: a picture of a garden and lawn that badly needed mowing (lots of great detail), and a picture of my daughter standing on our high-contrast asphalt driveway.

In all editors, we started with the full image and then zoomed in to double the size of the image and panned to a corner. We output all comparison test files in interlaced MPEG-2 format, using progressive output only when necessary to reduce flicker.

Premiere Pro
Adobe Premiere Pro has a strong set of permanent 2D motion controls automatically available for each image or video on the timeline, so you don't have to apply them to each image, as with Edition and Xpress, which saves an editing step. Controls include position, scale, and rotation, and all can be key-framed separately. You can grab and move the image around the frame directly, guided by safe zone markers, but you can't directly zoom into or out of the image. To do that, you have to use a slider control or enter a value.

Unfortunately, you'll have to work hard to remove flicker from your slideshows. Your starting point is the Flicker Removal option accessed by right-clicking the image and choosing Field Options. This helped some, but the flicker was still very apparent. Next we tried deinterlacing and finally outputting in progressive format, which virtually eliminated the flicker.

Final Cut Pro
Apple Final Cut also includes Basic Motion as a permanent effect, so you don't have to assign a motion effect to each image in a slideshow. The filter includes scale, rotation, and center (X/Y position), all keyframed separately, but only the scale has a slider, so you have to either drag the frame into the desired position or enter X/Y coordinates manually. Sliders or similar controls would have been nice.

Similar to what we found when working with HDV video in Final Cut, working with Final Cut's pan-and-zoom controls is frustrating until you enable Image + Wireframe view, which lets you grab and position the image freely, but doesn't include manual zoom capabilities. FCP does have a "Fit All" view that reveals the image in the monitor and the outline of the entire image, which is useful visual feedback during positioning.

Even better, Final Cut produced flicker-free video using default settings—no controls to set, no special rendering modes. If you do experience flicker with your images, note that Final Cut does have a Flicker Filter in the Video folder, which we didn't use. Our only complaint was that the image appeared slightly faded when compared to the output from the other editors.

Avid Xpress Pro
Avid's pan-and-zoom controls are very complicated. In essence, you have to create a placeholder on the video track for the still image, apply the effect to the placeholder, and then point the program to the actual high-resolution image on your hard disk. The 2D editing controls are comparatively primitive and don't include rotation, which you have to set using a different filter. You set keyframes for all parameters at once, not separately, and while you can grab and position the frame within the image, you can't zoom the image directly.

Avid provides a variety of filtering options; after reading the help files we tried BSpline Catmull (1 minute, 22 seconds to render for two images) and Avid Ultra Quality (5:52 to render) in both progressive and interlaced mode. In interlaced mode, both techniques produced significant shimmer in the images, which progressive output virtually eliminated, though at a slight cost in smoothness and just a touch of fading. In both modes, the quality of the pan-and-zoom effects were indistinguishable, making BSpline the better choice because of the shorter rendering time.

Pinnacle Liquid Edition
Pinnacle Liquid Edition (now officially absorbed into Avid's Liquid Line) offers several tools for slideshow pan and zoom; by far the most functional is the Classic 2D editor, which offers the broadest and most flexible toolset in the group. For example, you can position, zoom, and crop the image using either manual controls or sliders, and Pinnacle provides individual sliders for all controls, unlike Final Cut Pro and Premiere.

This 2D tool also offers shadow, cropping, transparency, and inside and outside borders, but you have to apply your chosen effect to each image—it's not a permanent effect. The best feature of the Classic 2D editor is an optional workspace that shows the complete image and your current viewport more graphically, making it easily the most visual pan-and-zoom tool of any product tested. The only noteworthy shortcomings are that you set keyframes collectively, not by individual parameter, and that you can't preview within the 2D control window except by manually dragging the edit line.

Unfortunately, Edition's rendering couldn't live up to the toolset. Though images are automatically rendered in progressive mode, this still didn't reduce flicker to the levels achieved by other tools. In addition, where other vendors faded the images slightly, Edition seemed to somehow make the image darker and a bit gloomy.

Sony Vegas
Like Pinnacle Liquid Edition, Sony Vegas has a large Pan/Crop control that's ideal for slideshows. It offers pan, zoom, and rotation, all available via direct manipulation or slider controls. Deficits include collective, rather than individual, keyframes; the lack of safe-zone displays; and the inability to preview within the Pan/Crop window.

Like all vendors, Vegas provides multiple interpolative paths between keyframes, but even when we selected a linear path, it kept implementing a smooth path, which at times actually moved a portion of the image out of the frame. While this could have been a computer-specific anomaly, it's worth watching out for when producing your slideshows.

Also helpful is the Reduce Interlace Flicker switch accessed from the timeline by right-clicking each image. In our tests, this reduced flicker significantly, while Vegas' slideshow retained the most vivid colors in the test. For all slideshow results, see Table 1, below.

Pan & Zoom ToolsPremiere 1.5Final Cut Pro 5Xpress Pro HDEdition 6.1Vegas 6.0b
Grab & move imageYesYesYes (move camera view)YesYes
Grab & zoom imageNoNoNoYesYes
Rotation controlsYesYesSeparateYesYes
KeyframeSeparateSeparateAll in oneAll in oneAll in one
Safe zoneYesYesYesYesNo
Complete image viewNoOutlineNoYesYes
Pan & Zoom Score34.

Table 1: Slideshow Features & Results

Rendering is the inescapable last stage of every project. While the target output for most editors traditionally has been tape, digital output formats, from DVD to streaming, have become increasingly important. Here we assess each editor's format support, encoding toolset, and performance.

Premiere's Adobe Media Encoder is a very solid tool for creating a range of files and file types, including MPEG-1 and 2, QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media. The tool provides good precision and excellent access to relevant encoding controls, creates and manages templates well, and renders quickly.

Final Cut's Compressor is the best homegrown compression tool of the bunch, courtesy of its streamlined interface and batch capabilities. Not surprisingly, support for Apple-sponsored formats like MPEG-4 and all flavors of QuickTime is very good, while Windows Media and Real are not available. Preset creation and management is simple, and performance proved very competitive in testing.

Avid is gradually expanding its rendering interface to include additional formats like Windows Media, with decent access to relevant controls and the easy ability to create encoding presets. However, for most serious work, like MPEG-2 encoding, you'll have to use the bundled Sorenson Squeeze 4.

Squeeze 4 is very competent, and with its extensive format support and very easy-to-use batch capabilities, it makes a great addition to the program. Still, you have to output an intermediate file from Avid, then input and encode in Squeeze, which adds an administrative step and possibly another encoding generation. At the very least, Avid should include the ability to create DVD-compatible MPEG-2 files with the main program. On a positive note, Avid's encoding speed was competitive on all formats that it supported.

Liquid Edition's rendering capabilities are a severe competitive disadvantage, with very limited control over key encoding parameters. For example, when encoding Windows Media files, you can't even see the target resolution or data rate of the encoded stream, and MPEG encoding controls lack niceties like progressive output.

Liquid's fast DV encoding times result from its operational schema, which renders all effects in the background during editing, and this approach seemed to help with MPEG-2 and Windows Media output as well. Realistically, however, unless your output requirements are limited to DV and MPEG-2, you're going to need a third-party encoding tool if you're editing with Liquid Edition.

Finally, Vegas has a straightforward, multi-tab interface that has presets but no batch capabilities, and isn't quite as straightforward as either the Adobe Media Encoder or Compressor. Format support is extensive, including MPEG-1 and 2, RealMedia, QuickTime, and Windows Media. Vegas was the only editor that could output AC3 audio files.

The big news with Vegas, however, is performance, a traditional Achilles heel through multiple generations of the software. Though it still ranked last in all encoding time trials, the difference is now measured in minutes rather than hours, and no longer a major consideration. Serious kudos to Sony for addressing this longstanding issue. See Table 2. below, for rendering results.

Encoding ToolsPremiere ProFinal CutXpress ProLiquid EditionVegas
Rendering time--full clip to MPEG-28:028:57N/A4:5213:19
Rendering time--to DV5:409:4610:50:4910:18
Rendering time--to Windows Media10:51N/A11:129:2812:15

Table 2. Rendering results.

Table 3 presents cumulative results, reflecting results from all tests performed in this four-part, four-issue Battle. When reviewing these, keep in mind that ease of use and the subjective feel of the editor are at least as important as the objective findings we present, and were weighed as heavily in the assessments.

Premiere ProFinal Cut ProXpress ProLiquid EditionVegas
Chromakey Rating1523.53.5
Color Correction Rating21345
HDV Score2.52.5N/A2.52.5
Slow Motion Score1.51.5354
Image Stabilization Score423N/A1
Pan & Zoom Score34.
Rendering Score45213

Also, two editors, Xpress and Edition, didn't have entries in all categories, which reduced their final score.

Congratulations to Sony for their top overall score!

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