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VideoToolkit Explained

I had a dilemma. Philip Palombo from Abbate kept sending me email telling me that I should write about Abbate’s product, VideoToolkit. I’m always willing to consider suggestions from readers, even if they are trying to push their own products, as long as they can convince me that the product is neat. Unfortunately, I have no experience with video (well, I’m extremely good at setting VCR clocks), and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would give a hoot about VideoToolkit from Abbate’s press releases. Finally Philip called me and gave me the entire history of the product and the rationale for each feature, and now I agree – VideoToolkit is a cool idea. I’m going to follow the same basic outline that Philip gave me, since I think it’s the only way non-video people will understand this program, and at $279 list, it’s not out of the reach or ken of normal people.

History lesson — Back in the dark ages of video, people would go out in the field (left field, I imagine) and record events. They would then come home and immediately "log," or write copious notes about, each scene, so they could easily recall each distinct scene when they edited the tape in an editing studio that could cost hundreds of dollars per hour. This log, a series of scenes, becomes an "Edit Decision List" (EDL) since you could use it to make decisions like putting scene 25 before scene 19 in the final tape. Needless to say, this logging process was generally considered about as much fun as dropping an open-face peanut butter sandwich face down on the rug.

That’s where OnTrack/Mac, VideoToolkit’s predecessor, appeared, because Mark Abbate (later joined by Philip Palombo), realized this was a job for a dedicated database that could control a VCR or camcorder (with a little extra hardware, of course). The database could store the beginning and ending locations of each scene and provide text fields for identifying each scene. This was a major step up, because when you went into the editing studio, you had a nicely printed list of each scene’s description, along with the exact starting and ending points.

This was handy for professionals, but the main semi-sophisticated feature at the time was the capability to control the VCR or camcorder. That feature would increase in importance in the future. In addition, if a Mac was available in the editing studio then you could transfer the edit list to the high-end edit controller.

By this time inexpensive controllers had shown up on the market, so you could create drafts, essentially, by taking an edit list and recording from one VCR to another. Unfortunately these inexpensive controllers were RAM-based, so you could make only one edit at a time. If you showed your draft to your client, and she hated scene 19 before scene 25, you had to go away and fix it.

VideoToolkit soon filled this niche too, by automating the control of two source VCRs and a recorder at the same time. Now you could create your edit list in VideoToolkit from two logs, and then actually make a second-generation tape of your rough draft to show your client. When your client hated scene 19, all you had to do was change the order of your edit list in VideoToolkit and re-record the destination tape from the original. Because this was a database, you could store multiple logs and manipulate the edit list easily. At this point, VideoToolkit was a HyperCard stack, which made it easy to find specific scenes, and teachers and salespeople could link presentations to video scenes on another monitor, so when the teacher reached a certain point in a stack, clicking a button would play a specific scene from VCR. In addition, if you used a RasterOps video card with VideoToolkit, you could capture a snapshot of the beginning and end of each scene. This made it easier to remember how each scene looked, because you could visually identify the beginning and end.

Enter QuickTime, which initially provided device independence to VideoToolkit’s snapshot capability. That was a big help for the ever-finicky professionals, and Abbate also made it easier for professionals to create a standard edit list-format with VideoToolkit, again simplifying the edit process in the high-end editing studio.

But what about Jane Q. User? Many of these features were aimed at professionals, but Abbate turned it around in VideoToolkit 2.0 (which became a stand-alone application), since it’s easy for a normal person to buy a camcorder and a digitizing card, and many people have at least one VCR around. First, Abbate added support for all QuickTime digitizing cards so VideoToolkit can suck the original video in through the card and turn it into a QuickTime movie. However, VideoToolkit uses a different method than other video capture applications. Instead of trying to swallow the entire video stream in real-time (like trying to drink from a garden hose), VideoToolkit digitizes each frame individually, then merges them into the QuickTime movie. Think of this as turning the hose on briefly, taking a swallow, and then turning it off quickly, repeating as necessary.

This step-and-grab technique relies on VideoToolkit’s ability to control the VCR carefully and requires a quality VCR (since the end quality will only be as good as the still frame quality), but it provides two interesting benefits. First, you can create an edit list in VideoToolkit and then have VideoToolkit create a QuickTime movie from that list, which is more efficient than bringing everything into the Mac and doing the rough editing there. Secondly, because VideoToolkit uses this step-and-grab technique, it can effectively create true 30 frame-per-second (fps) QuickTime movies up to full-screen size. Of course, this isn’t currently realistic because of the amount of disk space and RAM, not to mention processing power, needed to compress such a large movie, since VideoToolkit can’t compress on-the-fly because of the step-and-grab technique.

So again, we’re talking pretty neat stuff here. You can make a tape of something, create an edit list in VideoToolkit, suck that edit list into a QuickTime movie at up to 30 fps, and… well what about the sound? That’s right, QuickTime does talkies. That’s the latest feature, because this step-and-grab technique can’t take a snapshot of audio, so VideoToolkit makes a second pass through the tape after stepping through digitizing the images. On this second pass, which goes in real-time, VideoToolkit grabs the sound track and lays it on top of the video track in the QuickTime movie, synchronizing it to match properly.

Great, so we’ve got a QuickTime movie now. But it’s a lot easier to find a VCR for a presentation than a QuickTime-capable Mac with a projector. VideoToolkit can also embed the timecode in first frame of the QuickTime movies text track. That gives you unique frame references. Now, if you take your QuickTime movie into Adobe Premiere, you have the advantages of digital editing, seeing where everything will go and moving more quickly than on an analog system. Because each movie has that unique frame reference number now, you can then export the edit list (technically, a CMX 3600 EDL) out of Premiere, import it back into VideoToolkit, and have VideoToolkit control two VCRs to create a tape with your edited movie. You would, of course, lose any fancy effects you used in Premiere, since VideoToolkit is taking just that edit list and recording original footage from one tape to another, bypassing the digital step aside from the edit list.

So, if you’re doing a presentation and don’t know if you’ll have access to a QuickTime-capable Mac, you can create both your QuickTime movie (adding effects if you like) and a videotape of the same scenes (minus effects) and take both. If you only have a VCR and television, you’ve got that videotape backup, and that tape is also easier to give to grandparent-types without access to QuickTime if you do personal videos. Of course, it is possible to record a QuickTime movie to tape, which would give you your special effects, but when using the high ratio of software-based compression necessary to get the movie small enough to play back smoothly on the Mac, the quality may not be good enough. You can solve this by using pricey hardware compression (such as Radius VideoVision, RasterOps MoviePak or SuperMac’s Digital Film) while creating the movie and recording it to videotape.

Keep in mind that I’m merely reporting how things are supposed to work here. I don’t have the hardware to play with VideoToolkit, and I don’t have the background to judge it in comparison to other products. However, I think I’ve explained how VideoToolkit is supposed to work above well enough that you will get a sense of whether or not it’s worth checking out for your purposes. That you can do by talking to Abbate more, either in email or in their America Online forum (keyword: Abbate).

— Information from:
Philip Palombo, Abbate Video Inc. — [email protected]
508/376-3712 — 508/376-3714 (fax)

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