May 2003|My first extended exposure to amateur videography happened in the spring of 1990, when I was tramping around Europe like a lot of fortunate American college kids. Traveling alone, you spend a lot of time observing your surroundings, and in my case, as it happened, that meant other tourists as much as the sights and wonders we were there to see. If you're inclined even modestly toward righteous indignation, you quickly develop contempt for the fanny-packed forty-somethings whose video camcorders appear to have been surgically fused to their corneas the moment they left the States.
Though I'll confess to carrying a still camera of my own, I didn't use it much. Spurred, perhaps, by my contempt for the cam-crazy, I became increasingly convinced that the best way to take it all in was to discipline myself to absorb it with my own senses, and leave the postcards to the pros. And for the most part I'd say I succeeded. No instamatic snapshot will ever rival the image of Scotland's foreboding Firth of Forth from the top of a dead volcano on the outskirts of Edinburgh I can recall to mind at will; nor could some jerky camera footage of the hailstorm that sent me careening downhill to the nearest pub make the memory any clearer.
Of course, in some cases, what I remember every bit as vividly as the wonders around me is the bozos filming them; I can still picture the crumbs in the mustache of the aspiring documentarian deliberately plotting a trajectory along the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as his jowly wife narrated from the guidebook (and he repeatedly scolded her in an urgent, pointed whisper, "I'm not there yet"). This phenomenon recurred again and again, in country after country, monument after monument, over the next few weeks—man filming wall—and every time I watched this excruciating process drag on and on with only glacial progress, it left me scratching my head and wondering, "Are they ever gonna watch this stuff? And will they remember a single moment of this trip that the camera didn't capture?"
I still think the answer to both questions is no, but in the intervening years I've discovered something more important: it doesn't matter. And when I see statistics on the explosive growth in camcorder sales (of course we're talking mostly of digital camcorders now), and parallel leaping-and-bounding in the entry-level NLE and DVD authoring markets, I think back to those wall-eyed videographers (and the ones I saw years later at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—still annoying, but probably the most innocuous sort of shooting going on in the city), and swear I should have seen it coming. Of course there are no day-tripper videographers here in our digital studio domain, right? We're all professionals in these parts, and we all have more dynamic projects afoot and serious ambitions for our video work.
That said, the growth of the consumer market is instructive for several reasons, and crucial to the evolution of digital studio as a protean concept. Mass markets make cheap products, establish useful de facto standards like miniDV, and inspire ongoing R & D that yields products with arguably as much to offer those of us for whom video means business as the consumer types who pad the sales stats. And it's always interesting with a consumer product like, say, Pinnacle's Studio 8, to watch its feature set encroach on the capabilities of the higher-end tools, and introduce breakthrough features like DVD authoring in the video timeline that the pro tools haven't gotten to yet. Of course, taking that tack isn't for everyone—as Ulead's Travis White remarked recently at a Creative Cow West session, "I've looked at that approach and I'm not sold on it." Which leaves room for other types of strategic innovation in Ulead's popular and powerful entry-level NLE, Video Studio 7, a versatile software package that competes head-on with Studio 8. Video Studio 7 also, arguably, pushes the limit of what we expect from a consumer NLE, and not only intrudes on "corporate" turf, but also borrows features from more pro-oriented products in the Ulead line like Cool 3D Studio. And like every NLE worth its salt, Video Studio 7 takes users from capture to DVD (plus a host of other output options) with much to recommend it in between.
Capture is a standard capability of video editing software at just about any level, but Video Studio 7's capture utility distinguishes itself on a few key points. First is that if you're presumably starting your project with video capture, the Capture interface will be your first exposure to Video Studio 7's mammoth preview window. Given that the software's entry-level target audience is statistically unlikely to have luxurious two-monitor setups for their video editing work, it's a nice perk not to have to squeeze everything into a 4"x3" window where you can't really see what you're doing, particularly in the editing stage. Later on we'll also see Video Studio 7's full-screen preview feature, which—in spite of being slightly jarring at first—is the best way to see how your project will look as it's played back on TVs and other PCs.
We evaluated Video Studio 7 on our standard in-house testbed, a Pentium 4, 2.4gHz Sony Digital Studio VAIO with 512MB RAM, running Windows XP, using the 90GB segment of its on-board 120GB partitioned hard drive to store captured video. This review also adds a new standard element to our test set, a JVC GR-DVL315 MiniDV camcorder. Video Studio 7 is ably equipped to capture MiniDV video via FireWire, and recognized the JVC immediately when I plugged it into the 4-pin FireWire port on the front of the VAIO.
One particularly welcome feature of the capture zone is Batch Capture. As an event videographer, for example, you may have captured several hours of video footage for a project that will quickly boil down to an hour or less, and you may be able to eliminate many several-minute stretches of your video categorically, which would make it a waste of time and hard drive space to capture it all to your hard drive. Video Studio 7's Batch Capture feature allows you to scan your tapes before capture, and mark, via a single mouse-click, in and out points for capture (VS7 notes the timecodes communicated by your camcorder). Once you've selected all the segments you want, Video Studio 7 will automatically capture just those parts.
One rather quirky default setting in the software is Auto Transitions, which works just like it sounds, building on VS7's nice scene detection tool to find scene breaks and insert random transitions between them. My copy defaulted to some funky 3D transitions that appeared as soon as I dropped video files into the storyboard. Which kind of gives you an idea of how Ulead perceives VS7's target audience—much more dynamic than the wall-eye crowd, to be sure, but still conceiving something more recreational than the more business-like straight cuts preferred by professionals.
In addition to doing rock-solid real-time DV capture on any reasonably fast PC (Ulead recommends an 800mHz Pentium 3; other "real-time" features, like fast encoding/rendering, require 1.4gHz Pentium 4 processors and 7200RPM hard drives), VS7 also captures and saves in a variety of other formats including Windows Media (new with this version) and supports Sony's Micro MV for capture, edit, and save. VS7 will also capture video and convert it to MPEG-1 or -2 in real time to save hard drive space. Fortunately, on the flip side of that is VS7's ability to recognize those MPEG files before disc authoring and not re-encode them, as some tools do, costing the user time and quality. One more nice feature of VS7's video capture capabilities is Seamless Capture, which enables it to capture video files of more than 4GB, the filesize limitation in some filesystems. With Scene Detection and Seamless Capture on, if you've got 13GB of free hard drive space, you can capture a full hour-long DV tape completely hands-off.