Digital Video Trying to Come of Age in Las Vegas

by Derrick Story

There's a touching scene in the Minority Report where Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) gets stoned in his high-tech apartment and takes a visual trip down memory lane.

He doesn't look at snapshots or read old letters. Instead, he pops a video chip in a holographic projector and watches home movies from his lost family life. The ghost like figures seem so real, so near, yet they are nothing more than memories projected into thin air.

This week, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is holding its annual conference in Las Vegas, NV. If you've been to this show in recent years, you know that it covers just about anything that moves in the world of media. And the world of media is indeed moving closer to the hands of serious enthusiasts.

For example, Apple unveiled a new version of Final Cut Pro. Among its breakthroughs, FCP now has native 24-framesupport for Panasonic's AG-DVX100. In short, this represents a step closer to producing film-like big screen movies on the home desktop. The Panasonic camera was a breakthrough announcement a while back and made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival.

As Hollywood production moves into the home studio, consumer-level tools are becoming easier to use too. January's announcement of iMovie 3, Final Cut Express, and iDVD 3 mean that motivated hobbyists can create professional-looking DVDs with a Mac and a $500 DV camcorder. But I think "can" is still the operative word here. Just because you "can" doesn't mean that you will.

Maybe we are moving in the direction that Speilberg portrayed in the Minority Report where life-like video serves as our personal link to the past, our family history, and even our memory itself. Moving toward... maybe. But not quite there yet.

Until consumer-level DV camcorders get cheaper and better at recording life-like sound (you still have to use an external mic for quality), and until hard drives get a helluva lot bigger and cheaper too (you need a whopping 13 GBs for one hour of digital video), decent DV libraries will remain on the shelves of the serious enthusiast and not the casual user.

Cell phones are ubiquitous communications tools because everyone can use them well (manners notwithstanding). Digital still cameras are becoming more popular because the prices have dropped and people realize that they can take better pictures with them than with their film counterparts.

But for the moment, good digital video still requires a modest equipment investment and some technical savvy. I want DV to be easier because I think it's a valuable communication tool, historical recorder, and lots of fun. I want to see the day when we use video to record our lives the way our grandparents wrote letters and told stories -- not instead of the other media, but in addition to.

I'm working on a pocket guide right now to help make shooting video as easy as possible. But the tools still need to improve for the average consumer. Hopefully in the next year or two, mass market video will see the same kind of progress we've seen recently in digital still photography. We're getting close, and it's exciting.

For the technically-minded, now seems like a good time to jump in. The computer tools are interesting, somewhat affordable, and produce solid results. If you're interested, take a look at what's happening at the NAB show in Las Vegas. It really is amazing.

Now, about those home holographic projectors...


2003-04-08 10:10:13
Sound and Video are complementary, but different
You wrote: "Until consumer-level DV camcorders get cheaper and better at recording life-like sound (you still have to use an external mic for quality)...decent DV libraries will remain on the shelves of the serious enthusiast and not the casual user."

The problem you run into with this idea is physics. Video captures light reflected from the target. As long as you have a clear field of view of your target, you can move closer or pull back. And most video is better captured from a certain distance away, as that creates a better context for the shot.

Sound, on the other hand, is a set of vibrations through a medium. The medium itself (air) is absorptive, and you are better off getting close to the source of vibrations in order to pick up as wide a range of frequencies as possible with as little loss as possible. In short, sound is better captured at close range.

N.B., the above are generalizations, and there are always special cases where the generalization is wrong. I know that, you know that, let's not digress further.

Point being, a microphone sensitive enough to pick up sound at range is generally also going to pick up near-field sound, which, due to its relative intensity, will wind up obscuring the sound at range. Microphones that capture sound you will actually want to hear need to be close to the source, rather than mounted far away on a camera.

On top of which, dialogue is generally dubbed in later anyway. Sound captured on-site is useful for adding background context noise, but for best clarity, you need your main dialogue tracks recorded in isolation, with as little background noise as possible. Then, of course, you face mixing and timing issues.

And then there's background music. You *do* want music, don't you? :)

If what you want is decent audio recorded at the same time as your video, fairly good microphones can be had for as little as $60-$100. And a tree branch + duct tape is cheap enough, too, if you need a boom. Camera-mounted microphones are simply NOT the way to capture audio for video if you want any semblance of quality. On the other hand, you will wind up sacrificing spontaneity, and you will likely need assistance setting up the shot and handling the microphone.

Professional-quality audio is non-trivial. The equipment available today makes it easily within the reach of the home studio, but you still have to buy more than just the computer and the software. You need to buy at least one microphone, and more likely several, and they won't be cheap if you want good quality. But cheap is relative to the purpose. You can purchase equipment to outfit a decent home studio for the price of the Panasonic camera you mention. Not counting, of course, the computer. You can, of course, go cheaper, but you will have to work harder to achieve the same result quality.

2003-04-08 14:17:21
Sound and Video are complementary, but different
Oh I couldn't agree with you more. Your analysis is quite good, and it definitely applies to the serious enthusiast and beyond.

My point pertains to the wider adoption of DV among "average Joe consumers" who want to capture great video and audio without jumping through all the hoops we do now.

I realize that we're dealing with physics here. But IMHO, there are several key factors (such as price, ease of uploading, etc) that will influence consumer appeal for this medium, and "easy audio" that sounds good, I believe, is one of them. I have faith that technology will find an improvement in this area.

You and I might realize that video and audio are separate entities that need to be coordinated, but I don't think most consumers see it that way.

2003-04-09 12:05:05
the dark side of digital
Hi Derrick, M2 here. For some reason my login isn't taking (am I that easily forgotten? :-), but I wanted to respond to your article.

I know the scene in MR you're talking about, but what we don't know is what he may have done to enhance the image, like his enhanced state of mind while he's watching it.

The danger, if you will, is that with digital technology there is the possibility of manufacturing memory and history. Digital technology can then become either an enabler of denial (like the whiff he snorts) or a method of revising history, like we see in another digital heavy flic The Matrix, a scarier thought.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no Luddite, but technology advances always have a dark side and I don't think the picture of the digital future is always so rosy. Alternatively, digital video pamphleteers, like bloggers, will also provide historical evidence to counter mainstream or government revisionists.

I just hope the balance is maintained between beneficial and other, darker uses.

2003-04-09 13:46:55
the dark side of digital -- exciting and dangerous
Great point! Indeed, the digital danger is a real one.

This is an issue we've been grappling with since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- how do we take the good from technology and avoid the bad?

Based on what I see going on in digital still photography, I think we are up to the task. Just recently, a LA Times photographer was fired for digitally revising his composition. Even though the digital revision served to reinforce the message of the original photographs, he had to lose his job.

IMHO, it comes down to drawing a line in the sand, whether it be here or in Iraq, and respecting it.

Digital video can be a great tool for preserving family history, such as creating a living scrapbook with commentary from a family elder. Or it can be used to manipulate public opinion as in the movie Wag the Dog.

If we are to enjoy the benefits of technology, then as photographers and filmmakers, we need to take responsibility for our actions. On the whole, I think we're up to the task.

It's a great topic for discussion. If for no other reason, to remind us of the danger.