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Dipping into Digital Video

Here at TidBITS, we try to stay in step with the latest hardware and software being released for the Mac, such as our recent post-keynote look at iPhoto and the new flat-panel iMac. However, every once in a while it’s worth talking about something that’s been out for some time. Although iMovie 2 was released in July 2000, and has been included for free on all FireWire-enabled Macs since then (and included with Mac OS X 10.1), I didn’t pay much attention to it until I purchased a digital video camera. In short order, the iMovie 2 application previously taking up space on my hard disk became an invaluable tool for turning my raw video footage into something I’d be proud to show off to friends and family.


Apple has positioned iMovie as one of the key elements of its digital hub strategy, where a Mac exists at the center of several digital devices. In my case, the attraction was inverted: although I’d previously resisted video cameras, the existence of Apple’s easy-to-use video editing application was the catalyst that encouraged me to buy a digital camcorder before I left on a trip to Alaska last year. If you find yourself in a similar position, or if you’re just curious to know more about shooting and editing your own movies, stick around for a quick introduction to the field of digital video and what you need to get started.

Go Digital — If you don’t yet own a camcorder, do yourself a favor and buy a digital model. Although analog models are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, they lack the key to making it all work smoothly: simple transfers of video already in a digital format via FireWire. With a digital camcorder equipped with a FireWire port (also called an IEEE 1394 port or i.Link port on Sony camcorders), moving your video from the camera to your Mac is a simple matter of hooking up the right cable. (Be aware, though, that you’ll probably have to buy that cable separately, as it includes a standard 6-pin FireWire connector on one end, and a smaller 4-pin connector on the other end that plugs into the camera; this cable can cost you anywhere between $10 and $50 from most computer or electronics stores.) If you already own an analog camcorder, you’re not out of luck: you can get an analog-to-digital converter such as Dazzle’s $300 Hollywood DV-Bridge, but in my limited testing the quality wasn’t as good, and it added an extra step to the process of transferring video into my Mac. (Although it might make more financial sense to apply the $300 to a new digital camcorder, the Dazzle is also great for converting your old VHS tapes to digital.) A few camcorder models, notably several offered by Sony, feature the capability to handle the analog to digital video conversion within the camera.



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With the digital issue settled, the next important consideration is which camcorder to buy. Naturally, they range in quality and price from consumer models to drool-inducing professional cameras, and it’s definitely worth checking out a model comparison site like Active Sales Assistant. You’re likely to encounter several digital storage formats, too, including Digital 8, MiniDV, and the new super-compact Micro MV. The current standard is MiniDV, which is a 2-inch by 2.75-inch tape that stores one hour of footage; you can store up to 90 minutes when recording at a slower speed, but you sacrifice quality for duration. At some point digital camcorders will record directly to hard disks (and in fact you can set up a camcorder to record directly to your Mac if you want), but for now tape remains the best medium for storing the massive amounts of data required for digital video. Unlike analog tapes, the MiniDV format retains its image quality after repeated recordings, so footage you shoot today is much more likely to last longer than the VHS tapes that are quietly decomposing on your living room shelf.


For my trip, I was looking for a strictly consumer-level unit that was easy to carry, easy to use, and could easily transfer video into my Mac. I also needed something quickly, since we were due to leave on our trip in a few days and I hadn’t yet had time to look into all the options. After trying out both an analog and a digital camcorder at a local photography store, I opted for the Canon ZR20 (which retails for around $700 but can be found for less – check your favorite price comparison sites).




Video Quality — Compared to the image quality of digital still cameras, which measure image quality in millions of pixels, digital camcorder image quality seems pathetic. Most consumer-level units contain a single CCD (charge-coupled device) that captures approximately 290,000 pixels. But note that camcorders record interlaced video, which means that in any given frame, only every other horizontal line is recorded. (Broadcast television uses a similar method.)

Recent camcorders advertise the capability to take still pictures and save them to another media, usually a CompactFlash card or Sony’s Memory Stick. The advantage of this approach is that more image data is captured, using a non-interlaced process called progressive scan display. Some camcorders offer this feature without the separate media capability, which ends up being useless; the still image is saved to the MiniDV tape by freezing the image and recording it for five seconds (the audio continues to record, however, so you can often hear people talking even though they’re frozen on screen). The resolution is lower, and you can capture a single frame as a still image in iMovie with more flexibility. Personally, I’d rather use a digital still camera for taking stills and leave video capture to the camcorder.

Audio — One of the limitations I’ve found with my Canon ZR20 is that the built-in microphone is mounted above the tape’s motor, so when you’re shooting in quiet situations, the microphone picks up the sound of the motor. In most cases this hasn’t been a problem, but if you’re looking to remake My Dinner With Andre, you may want to compensate by using an external microphone, such as a lavalier (clip-on) type, or using a directional mic that clips onto the top of the camera. Any decent camcorder will have a port into which you can plug a microphone.

As a testament to how deeply I was sucked in by the flexibility and freedom of shooting digital video and editing it in iMovie, I wrote a book about it: iMovie 2 for Macintosh: Visual QuickStart Guide. In an upcoming article I’ll share some shooting and iMovie tips I picked up while writing the book.

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