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Review: Serious Magic Visual Communicator Pro
Posted Mar 4, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 2 next »
  

Synopsis: Visual Communicator Pro brings broadcast-quality effects and compositing to the masses. What's more, it reaches down and lifts up PowerPoint users with the ability to create dynamic presentations for business, school, or fun without having to know the ins and outs of professional videography. With real-time video effects and transitions, attractive templates and graphics, music loops from SmartSound, and a version of Sonic's MyDVD, Visual Communicator Pro delivers both a video studio and a post-production facility in a single box.

Serious Magic's Visual Communicator Pro might, at first blush, seem to be a bit far afield from EMedia's usual focus. A decidedly consumer-oriented presentation software package, it doesn't do much that can't already be done with more professionally targeted tools from established players in the video production market.

But just as Sonic's MyDVD and Pinnacle's Studio have brought powerful, near professional-quality authoring and editing capabilities to within the grasp of consumers and hobbyists, so does Visual Communicator Pro bring broadcast-quality effects and compositing to the masses. What's more, it reaches down and lifts up PowerPoint users with the ability to create dynamic presentations for business, school, or fun without having to know the ins-and-outs of professional videography. With real-time video effects and transitions, attractive templates and graphics, music loops from SmartSound, and a version of MyDVD, Visual Communicator Pro delivers both a video studio and a post-production facility in a single box.

Its ace in the hole is Serious Magic's own Ultra software, which lets novices explore the heretofore pro-only territory of chroma keying. With the supplied "V-screen" backdrop and either a webcam or a DV camcorder, it's possible to chroma key in less-than-ideal environments and achieve results that can stand toe-to-toe with the kind of composited video you see every night during the television weather report.

In a former life, I was a music journalist and teacher, and so when it came time to create a test presentation, I stepped back into those shoes and quickly put together a brief overview of pop music in the 1990s, one that would be suitable for the classroom. Visual Communicator Pro is perfect for distance-learning applications, or even to make lectures available to students who miss a class. Heck, who am I kidding? With the ability to incorporate still images, video, and music clips, a VC Pro version of a lecture (or a client presentation, for that matter) is probably going to be more effective than the in-person variety.

Start Making Sense
VC Pro opens with a wizard that first asks if you want to create Professional Content for high-resolution presentations designed for television viewing or Web Content for projects to be viewed on the computer screen. Then, you're asked to create a "show" based on a Style—such as antique, financial, or contemporary—or a Topic—such as business, personal, or school. Your choice dictates what background and graphics template theme you want to apply to the entire project; you can also begin with blank video and mix-and-match elements from various themes throughout your presentation. I selected a contemporary look, and then created my opening slate. When you enter the video and presenter name, VC Pro adjusts the font size on-the-fly to fit cleanly into the provided template. It also comes bundled with Alpha CG, a broadcast-quality title generator that gives you more control over the elements on your title slates.

After entering my script in the Teleprompter window, I collected the images I wanted to use to illustrate pop music in the 1990s—shots of Kurt Cobain, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, an album cover from hair-metal abomination Warrant, and even a shot of Craig Werner, whose A Change is Gonna Come would be one of the course's required texts. I knew I'd be transitioning from image to image, and from image to my "talking head," so I began dragging effects from the Video Effects browser into the appropriate points on the Action Area to the right of the teleprompter. Available effects include peels, pushes, roll outs, zooms, and picture-in-picture.

Each effect button, or Action Tray, includes two windows. The one on the left indicates the type of transition, with an "A" representing the currently playing screen and a "B" representing the scene to which you want to transition. The window on the right is blank, waiting for you to drag into it the image or video file (you can also transition from an image back to the "talking head" footage you'll be shooting to finalize your presentation). You can adjust the duration of each transition, and you can also add a Smart Trigger that will pause the script until a video has finished playing, letting you resume reading your script when the action is done. VC Pro accepts most still and video image formats, including BMP, JPEG, Real, and WMV.

Remain in Light
When you've got all these elements in place, it's time to get ready to shoot the presentation itself. Rather than test the V-screen and Ultra's chroma key capabilities under optimal studio conditions (mainly because, like most people who'll use the software, I don't have access to optimal studio conditions), I simply hung the V-screen—a 5'x6' green vinyl sheet—on the wall behind my desk chair and propped the DV camcorder on a stack of books behind the computer monitor. All I had available for lighting was the two-bulb fluorescent ceiling fixture, and I hadn't even flattened out the V-screen, which meant that creases and shadows were clearly visible.

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