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Manifest Technology by Douglas Dixon. Published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on February 23, 2000. All rights reserved.
DV: Professional Video on Your Desktop
Are you thinking that it might be time to buy a new
camcorder, maybe to capture a special family anniversary, or to take
on a trip? Perhaps you’ve noticed a new kind of camcorder on the
called "DV" for Digital Video. These video cameras are getting
lighter and more compact, and some are even small enough to fit in
the palm of your hand. Plus, the DV format promises the benefits of
digital technology, including higher picture and audio quality, the
ability to make perfect copies without losing quality, and even the
potential to edit and share video material on your computer.
But is this new DV format a good bet for consumers? Or is it part
of yet another huge marketing battle being fought by the global
electronics giants, a battle that could end up leaving us stuck with
another dead-end product like a Betamax VCR or DIVX DVD player?
In this case, the answer is clear: DV is the real thing. It’s been
around long enough to shake out early problems, and it’s off to a
good start as the next step in consumer camcorders. But the real
booster is the ratification of the quality and potential of the DV
format by the professional video production market, which has
adopted DV cameras. Major players like Sony and Panasonic also have
adopted and extended the DV format into a wide range of professional
As a result, DV is nothing less than a revolution: the democratization
of video production. For the first time, consumers have access to
video equipment that allows them to capture, edit, and create video
productions at full resolution and full quality. Apple’s recent
campaigns for the new iMac DV computer are built on this premise,
showing how consumers can shoot and edit their own videos.
"It’s awesome what you can get with DV," says Steve Smith,
president of Videosmith Inc. in Philadelphia, "all in the size
of a paperback book." Smith speaks from over 20 years of
shooting on location around the world, for clients including CBS News
and Turner Sports (http://www.videosmith.com, 215-238-5070).
is changing how people approach video. Even when people go on a
shoot they also take along a mini-DV camera to catch extra footage
like reaction shots." And DV quality is good enough that it can
be intercut with the professionally shot footage.
Smith speaks on "The Little Big Shootout: Mini-DV vs. Betacam"
before the Moving Image Professionals (MIP) on Tuesday, February 29,
at 6:30 p.m. at the Bristol-Myers Squibb television studio on Scudders
Mill Road. He will bring examples of some of the newest gear used
in the field, and provide side-by-side comparisons of different
MIP is the Central New Jersey chapter of the International Television
Association (ITVA), a professional organization for people working
in the fields of video, film and multimedia. For more information,
contact Sam Russell at 609-671-0883, or check the MIP web page at
The magic of the DV format is that it is direct to digital. It’s the
video equivalent of audio CDs, replacing analog recording with the
advantages of digital technology for the consumer market. Digital
means no more audio pops and hiss, no more video drop-outs and
and, most of all, no more accumulated quality loss as a tape is reused
DV camcorders capture video and audio digitally, and record directly
to cassette tape in digital format, so your original recording is
stored at higher quality. With the data stored in digital format,
you can make exact digital copies without suffering the kind of
loss you get when copying an analog VHS or 8 mm tape. And DV
have digital interfaces, so you can connect them directly to your
computer to edit your videos, again at full quality.
By mid-1999, consumer DV camcorders became available from a wide
of manufacturers. As the variety of models increased, the prices also
started falling. While higher-quality units still cost over $1,000,
prices on some units recently have dropped below $700. Consumer DV
camcorders also use a new one-hour Mini-DV tape cassette, which is
only 2 x 2.2 x 1/2 inch, or about half the size (and thinner) than
the 8 mm video tape format. This means that Mini-DV cameras can be
shrunk down to be smaller than 5 by 4 by 3 inches, to weigh only
1 1/2 pounds.
Even though DV cameras use a different video tape format, you can
use them just like any other analog camcorder. You can shoot your
video, view it on the built-in viewscreen, and then connect it to
your existing video equipment. DV camcorders have the same analog
output jacks to view your digital DV tapes on your television, or
to record them on analog VHS or 8mm tapes.
As a result, DV camcorders still make sense even if
you never use them with a computer; DV is still a great format for
saving and copying your video. DV provides higher video resolution:
around 500 horizontal lines, compared to around 425 for S-Video and
Hi-8, and 300 lines or less for 8 mm and VHS. In addition, many DV
camcorders have analog input jacks, so you can record your old tapes
and save them in the digital DV format. You can rescue all those old
family videos on the back of the shelf and archive them in digital
Of course, even though you can use DV simply as a digital camcorder,
you would be missing out on the really fun part until you hook up
to your computer to edit the video. DV camcorders have a built-in
FireWire high-speed digital interface. (Technically, FireWire is the
Apple term for the interface, while the official standard is called
IEEE-1394, and Sony uses the name i.LINK. These are all different
names for the same high-speed digital interface, which runs at 400
million bits per second, or faster than the disk drives and even the
internal bus on most PCs.)
Using the 1394 interface, you can connect a DV camcorder to your PC
and transfer the video and audio between the DV tape and your PC’s
hard disk. Since the 1394 DV interface protocol includes both data
and control information, you actually can control your camcorder from
the PC software to skip through the tape and access the clips that
With DV video editing software, you can bring clips into your computer
to create your own production. You can trim clips to remove unwanted
material, and then combine and rearrange them to tell your story.
You can also go further to add professional touches like titles, video
and audio effects, transitions (wipes and fades between clips),
narration, and even background music.
However, 1394 is a relatively new interface, so connecting a DV
to most computers requires installing a 1394 board in your computer.
These boards are now available for as little as $100, and come bundled
with video editing software. (Higher end cards and software, such
as the Radius EditTV, cost as much as $800.) Some manufacturers are
already beginning to build 1394 into PCs. For example, the Sony VAIO
Digital Studio PC line includes two 1394 ports and bundled software
for capturing and editing both motion video and still images from
As with most relatively new technology, there are
caveats to working with DV, especially when upgrading an existing
computer. Unfortunately, the DV interface is not fully standardized,
so when buying a 1394 board make sure that it is compatible with your
specific DV camcorder. Also use a higher-end PC, since processing
and storing DV video data places major demands on your system
speed and data bandwidth (well beyond building spreadsheets or even
The experienced users say that you want not only a fast processor
(300 megahertz is a starting point) but also lots of RAM (256 megs)
and a fast hard drive (66 megabyte transfer speed) generally found
only in PCs sold within the past year.
In particular, make sure you have plenty of disk space to store your
video files; the DV format compresses video to around 3 1/2 MB
bytes) per second, so it takes only around 4 1/2 minutes of material
to consume 1 GB (billion bytes) of disk space. Since a typical low-end
consumer PC (around $1,000) has 4 to 5 gigabytes of disk space, and
even a higher-end work PC (around $1,400) has 10 to 14 gigabytes,
do not expect to edit two-hour movies in one session on your home
PC. Instead, plan to work on shorter clips, and then output them back
to DV tape when you are done.
Jim Parker, who does high-end digital video at his Riverview Studios
in Bordentown (www.riverviewstudios.com, 609-298-4882), suggests that
consumers trying their hand at DV may find that it’s not quite as
easy or as inexpensive as some of the advertising would suggest.
question is will their time be spent effectively? Will they get
they are looking for?" Parker says. "There’s an Apple program
— Final Cut Pro — that’s really hot. Even the professionals
are trying it." But, he notes, while the software costs only about
$1,000, a system powerful enough to run it would bring the cost to
more like $5,000 — and that doesn’t include the camera.
But the real win with editing DV video on a home PC is that it is
real video: full video resolution and full frame rate. This is not
the compromised low-resolution, low-rate jumpy and smeary video that
you are used to seeing on PCs. This is the real thing; when you finish
the production, and write it out to DV tape again, it is still real
video, at the same quality as the original. If you have been wishing
for real video on your PC, then DV finally provides the goods.
Steve Smith’s company, Videosmith Inc., began using the Mini-DV
format in 1995, and now offers a growing range of support products
for Mini-DV and small camcorders. Smith began shooting video in 1968
while attending Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. "I
had a lifelong interest in photography, and bought my first video
camera in college," he says. "I started out to be the great
American documentary maker. To pay for the film, I convinced a
station to buy news stories at $10 a pop." He started working
as a full time freelancer in 1972, with his wife doing sound
and did a lot of work for CBS in the mid-70s. In 1977, he moved to
Philadelphia from central Pennsylvania and started Videosmith.
As its video production business expanded, Videosmith opened a video
production facility in Princeton in 1986. In 1995, however, Smith
saw the emerging competition from lower-end video equipment and home
PC-based video editing equipment, and sold all of Videosmith’s editing
facilities to concentrate on production and the rental business.
now does more retail business, and recently opened an on-line store
for video equipment and custom peripherals.
Videosmith recently completed a one-hour documentary about the City
of Philadelphia’s newly revamped 911 emergency call system for the
Discovery Channel’s primetime documentary series, "On The
The show was shot almost entirely on Mini-DV gear, over days and
in the call center and out on the streets. "The result was
"The show was originally budgeted for professional gear,"
says Smith. "But we were riding around in police cars and
and the professional cameras were too big, we would literally be in
their face. With Mini-DV we could mount remote cameras on the
for over the shoulder shots, taped to the seats for a fisheye view
out back, even on the hoods and roofs." The hardest problem for
the production team was scrambling into the ambulances when an
call came in to get all the gear turned on before the crew drove off.
The difference between consumer Mini-DV camcorders and the
formats is mostly in the ruggedness of the units, and the quality
of the lens and audio. "The format is almost perfect to start
with," says Smith. "It’s the other things that make a
Manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and Canon offer
more rugged Mini-DV cameras with three separate CCD image sensors,
interchangeable lenses, and professional microphones, for prices
$4,000. The DV format has also been extended for professional use
in competing professional formats, Sony DVCAM and Panasonic DVCPRO.
These use a wider track pitch and faster tape speed to provide more
robustness and reliability, and permit frame-accurate editing. These
cameras cost around $5,000, depending on the quality of the CCD image
sensors and lenses.
"DV gives the producer more options to acquire images, and it’s
all usable, and immediately available," says Barry Byrne, creative
director with New York Digital Design (NYD2), a digital production
and communications agency in Lebanon, New Jersey
908-534-6780). "With DV, the small cameras, reduced rigging, and
wireless mikes means that one person can do the shoot. But DV is not
used as a primary production vehicle. The small size is hard to move;
you can’t mount it on a steadycam. It’s difficult to compose the shot,
especially with a moving camera. DV is best used for shooting
forms and interactive features, where you can minimize the camera
movement and reduce the contrast."
The digital video compression used in the DV format can produce
flaws when shooting video under difficult conditions, such as color
smearing and blocky regions. "Sometimes you can see `artifacts’
[distortions], especially at low light levels or with a busy
says Brian Connor, president of RSVP Inc., a video production
rental, and post-production house in Broomall, PA
610-328-3777). "But you’re hard pressed to tell it’s DV when
shooting a person against a blue sky on a bright sunny day."
So if you are looking for a new camcorder, it’s time to seriously
consider the new DV format. DV camcorders typically include features
such as both a viewfinder and pop-out LCD screen, optical and digital
zoom control, stabilization, analog output, and FireWire (IEEE 1394)
output. The more expensive units offer additional features including
three CCD image sensors (for better color quality), high-resolution
still capture (like a digital still camera), analog video and audio
input (for preserving your old analog tapes), and other digital
Sony has confused the consumer DV market by introducing a new DV
called Digital 8. The idea behind Digital 8 was to provide
with the older 8 mm format, especially for people who already have
an extensive library of 8 mm tapes. Digital 8 uses the same 8 mm
tapes, so it can play existing 8 mm (analog) video. And it records
video on the 8 mm tapes in DV digital video format. However, it
on the tape twice as fast, so a standard 120-minute 8 mm tape provides
only 60 minutes of Digital 8 recording time, the same as Mini DV
Sony recommends using the more expensive Hi8 format tapes for digital
The 8 mm tape format is also currently less expensive and more
than DV tapes (DV cassettes cost around $7.50 each in bulk, while
Hi8 tapes are around $4.50). However, since Mini-DV uses a smaller
tape, the Mini DV cameras can be smaller and lighter. They also are
available from a wide range of manufacturers, providing a wider
of options and prices.
DV looks like it’s here to stay. Just ask the video professionals:
"The DV format is great," says Brian Connor of RSVP. "DV
is wonderful for consumers; now you can edit video at home."
"The DV format gets gear into more people’s hands, and to the
mass consumer," says Barry Byrne of NYD2. "It gives the
more options to acquire images, and it’s all usable, and immediately
"Jobs lend themselves to this little format," says Steve
"The quality is stunning; people are blown away. Kids and schools
can turn out stuff that required a half-million dollar edit room 10
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