Talking DV

 
In the monsoon of 1999, our good friend Arun Jethmalani (CEO, Imagene) very kindly put spare capacity on his entire Digital Video (DV) kit at our disposal, for us to informally attempt production of an independent documentary-film on the ancient Gurjara Prathihara heritage of temples and monasteries in the Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh, Central India (
to discover why we periodically visit the area, check the old "enviro-action" link at <http://business.vsnl.com/pamasia/>).

By a lucky "coincidence" this also clicked with the whole millennium brouhaha of the time, in so far as this particular Indian heritage is now almost exactly 1,000 years old.

That was our first introduction to DV.

Riding a jeep provided by the very excellent local District Collector, Mr. Shailesh Pathak, we gathered about six hours of amateur-stock through the week-long visit, and came home to huge thrills at how wonderful it all looked. Word got around too, and we soon had an urgent request for a "pilot" of the project to attempt commissioning of a telecast of the final film through Doordarshan ~ India's national telecaster.

Although the time-frame on this seemed entirely unrealistic, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity and piled onto Arun and his edit-suite, and with his help learned how to use (very basically) Adobe Premiere while also completing the video above (incl. opening and closing texts), over the course of three intense half-nights in a row. We hope that serves as an indicator on how easy it is to climb the first rungs of the learning- curve with this stuff. For the record, nothing came of it from Doordarshan as such commissioning was frozen soon after, but we did win the inimitable Ragini Deshpande's support in editing a more final 20 minute draft which was publicly screened sometime later via a VHS dump, alongwith several other films, at a sort of "Mini Film Festival" in Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Instt.), New Delhi.

On the technical front: pixelation was seen to be just about beginning with some frames at the 10 ft (diagonal) projection-screen resolution.

On the personal/professional front, we were hooked!, and within less than a year had established in-house DV at a level slightly below Arun, with the classic iMac DVSE (
Digital Video Soecial Edition) for edit.

This is basically a home-configuration, which we put to use for several of the video-clips on this CD. However, please do not refer to these on quality because, as with the example above, all are at least compressed.

DV cameras today cost upwards from just about (USD) $400 to $4,000,.. and more. Our own choice fell less than halfway, on the beautiful and very-very compact JVC GR-DVX70 (PAL). This placed us behind Arun's "semi-pro" Sony cameras on several counts, of which the most telling so far has been its inability to record directly from TVs and VCRs. Beyond that, for lay people like us at least, there is little to differentiate the camera's results from more expensive (or cheaper) cameras.

In fact, at least right up to the scale of a standard domestic television screen, nothing very much really distinguishes visual quality above or below Hi-8,.. or almighty Betacam for that matter.

As the latest part of the video production process to go digital, DV cameras provide two major advantages over conventional analog cameras, as follows:

  • video in a digital format instead of analog attains excellent image quality on moderately priced gear. Also, digital signals do not degrade with time, or suffer generation loss
  • as the video data is digitized onto tape as "files" while being filmed, video "capture" simply involves transferring the files to computer. There is no additional digitizing to be done either from camera to computer or vice versa (nevertheless, final dump after editing, to a universal computer format such as Quicktime .MOV is a slow process)

The basic codec of DV differs from most others in that it is not intended for multimedia output (that's why the slow .MOV dump). Instead, it is used primarily for storing original footage, transferring it to the computer, and then again storing final edited footage for playback through a television.

There are several variations on DV but the term itself is most often used to mean MiniDV, the popular consumer format. DVCAM uses the same bitstream, but with a larger, higher-grade tape for greater reliability. DVCPRO uses a professional-grade tape as well, and supports a higher quality mode (DVCPRO 50) which uses twice the data rate to achieve higher color resolution and less compression.

Color sub-sampling in Mini DV-cams like ours is fine for most projects, but is not acceptable for high-quality work such as bluescreen. For that, you'd preferably use DVCPRO 50, or an analog pro format such as BetaCam SP.

Some DV cameras offer a "progressive scan" feature. This records each frame as a single non-interlaced image, instead of two separate interlaced fields. Progressive scan source material often doesn't play as smoothly on television as interlaced material, but is vastly superior for desktop delivery, because it contains no interlacing artifacts. This is a good feature to check out when buying a DV camera intended for desktop delivery.

Encoders at the camera end are generally buit-in hardware, while almost all software support is via QuickTime 3, and up. Connectivity between camera to computer (or to other DV cameras/devices) is via the new "Firewire" standard (also referred to as IEEE1394).

That's where the iMac DVSE comes in.

Most of us have by now heard about how the Apple folks pioneered all sorts of digital goodies, from the good ole mouse right through to the concept of Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs). And they haven't stopped.

The Firewire standard by which DV devices connect with each other and with computers is one of the more recent contributions made by Apple to human creativity, and with the iMac DV & DVSE, the loop is very satisfactorily complete with regard to home and semi-pro video. However, one has to mention here for the record that we've so far been unable to interface the DV camera's stills capability with the iMac, even via the proprietary software from JVC.

While DV and other video cameras have of course already been connecting to computers (including Macs) for years, the true essence of the new offering lies in direct Firewire connectivity,... to the iMovie software that comes bundled with the iMac DV & DVSE.

Whatever one may say about iMovie in the context of lay use cannot be good enough,.. but equally, this is far-far away from being a pro platform. There's no image control at all, no A-B roll concept, no audio tweakers, etc., but where the software does break through is in sheer user-simplicity and speed. Plug in a camera and it's integrated instantly via screen controls. Video-grabbing is just a matter of tapping the 'shift' key once at each "In" and "Out" point during playback. Things like titles and transitions (while few) are simple click'n'drag artifacts. The learning curve may still be steep to some, certainly, but it's also very-very-very short. Everything is in realtime, except final export to computer file (Quicktime .MOV).

As for the iMac DVSE itself ~ well, an old PC hand like me can't easily agree that "it's a scandal to compare it to a PC," as suggested in the advertising. At the price, one could probably have bought two PC P-IIIs that could each have lulled one into indifference with a lullaby, but there are all sorts of little things that do keep suggesting that there's something very basically different here.

For starters, the best recommendations we could draw from the engineer who installed it was that [i] uninstalling software is just a matter of dragging a directory into trash, and [ii] the computer is immune to Windows viruses. A more hard-boiled user friend submitted that if getting something done on a PC were yo take 5 steps, an iMac will do it in 2-3.

Big Deal?? But wait, there's more.

The screen. It's so comfy and cozy that one can sit with one's face shoved into it at close range all day without suffering, and it sometimes even shows you things in images that you'd never ever see on your PC screen (for reference ~ my last was a 17" LG Flatron!!),.. and there's none of that no-getting-away-from-it PC racket of fans and transformers and floppy-drives and god knows what. However, text for some reason can look pretty lousy to someone used to good PCs, and the cursor can even be a cussed thing to find for fleeting moments every now and again between mousing and typing. That may be one reason why one finds oneself a lot more mouse-biased than when earlier on PCs.

On the downside ~ we've surprisingly had a few minor knocks from system memory even though this baby comes pre-loaded with 128mb RAM. A support engineer pointed out how programs and files in the background keep hanging on to memory and should be shut down when neccessary, but our experience seems to have been a bit more complex,... and boy-o-boy!, these Apple chaps have gone one up on the old Windows "illegal operation" with a heart-stopping "Sorry, but the error is fatal."

FATAL error??? Rare and exotic yes, but true,.. and seemingly entirely harmless beyond requiring a restart or reset, with perhaps a quick nitroglycerine tuck under the tongue for some just the first time around.

So what's the verdict?

[i] I certainly hope it's bye-bye to PCs, but do suspect that they're catching up

[ii] compared to a PC, this machine has personality,.. perhaps even persona ~ iMac. uWho?