Getting Started with Video (re: "Video? I Doubt It.")

This is response to Tim Bray’s Video? I Doubt it. post from yesterday. In it he suggests that the new Canon 5D’s HD video capabilities will not translate to a flood of high-quality video content. He argues that video production is much more difficult than photography and requires and entirely different set of skills. I agree that video production poses problems, here are some of the technical challenges I encountered…

Technical Challenges

Get Ready for Too Much Data – Shoot two hours of HD footage at 1080i, connect it to your computer, and prepare for a surprise. If you are like me you have a laptop drive with, at most, 20 or 30 GB free. At OSCON I remember connecting the HDcam I had at the time to my laptop and realizing that there was no way I was going to be capturing four hours of footage off of MiniDV shot at 1080i with anything less than 100GB of free space.

Prepare to Sacrifice Hours to Capturing Content (Loading from Camera to Computer) – I started with the FX-1 from Sony which records to MiniDV. My experience (possibly due to the fact that I had a 4500 RPM drive) was that an hour of footage took an hour to capture from tape to my laptop’s hard drive. Even with my new Sony HD camcorder which records to a 60GB hard drive, the transfer time for a video is consistently 1:1 with recording time. If you shoot an hour of footage, plan on leaving your computer alone to capture an hour of footage from the camera. Other people have different experiences here, but my particular Sony camcorder made the mistake of using USB 2.0 for capture.

Drop $199 on Final Cut Express – The initial videos I produced for O’Reilly were in iMovie, and it worked very well until I had to start worrying about overlaying audio. When I record an interview, often times I have an H2 recorder running as a backup. This means that I have an independent audio track which must be overlayed on to a vid. Doing this in iMovie is “possible”, but entirely impractical (esp. if you need to do any audio editing). While iMovie does have transitions and titles, you are going to need something more capable if you start getting into anything more serious than a simple title screen.

Set Aside a Few Days to Learn Final Cut Express – Once you’ve purchased Final Cut Express don’t just assume that you’ll fire it up and use it without investing at least a day to figure out the interface. Bray is right when he says it is not an easy program to learn, but I think he’s a bit off the mark. Once you learn the basics of navigating the interface, it is fairly intuitive. The challenge is figuring out the keyboard shortcuts. I know enough to do what I need to do, but large portions of Express remain a mystery to me. (think Photoshop, what non-designer uses more than 5% of the capability of that tool?) The pro dude I worked with last weekend said that I should “do color correction” in Final Cut, maybe one day I’ll understand what he was trying to say to me… for now, I’ll be lucky if my videos are steady.

Video is Easy to Edit Compared to Audio – I disagree with Bray when he says that it takes hours to edit a few minutes of video. Compared to audio, video is very easy to edit because there are visual cues. I usually require a 3:1 ratio for video editing (90 minutes for a 30 minute video), but I’m also building in time for learning (I’m still a new rookie). Audio is more difficult to edit than video in part because you can edit audio somewhat aggressively. If I have ten seconds of Frank Hecker saying, “Uh… The Mozilla… Mozilla Foundation is… um… a non-profit”, I can edit that down to “The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit” without it sounding particularly screwed up. If you try heavy editing of video, you’ll end up making your subject look like a freak. On top of that, audio interviews over the phone are difficult to conduct as there are no visual cues. Phone interviews require heavy editing, they just do. (I’ve been told they don’t, but I disagree.) Videos are usually continuous, there are visual cues, and I’ve found that edits are rare because the interaction is more natural.

Prepare to Sacrifice Hours to Rendering – Once you’ve bought new hard drives, purchased Final Cut Express, sacrificed a day to learn the basics of the tool, sacrificed another day to capture content and edit, prepare for the interminable progress bar of rendering. Final Cut Express sucks in this respect in that, a 45 minute movie can take anywhere from two hours to nine to render depending on output size, quality, etc. I usually output movies to 1280×720 for upload to Vimeo with relatively high-quality encoding options. It takes forever….

Time, time, time – The most expensive part of video production is time, it takes forever. If you have an extra $4k, you should purchase one of the most expensive MacPro setups you can just hope that having eight processors and superfast disks helps the process. I ended up having to go out and get an iMac with a 7200 RPM drive. From start to finish, it took me about two months to get comfortable with the whole pipeline.

HD will destroy you – Do you need to shoot in HD? Do I need to shoot in HD? All of my stuff ends up on YouTube or Vimeo? Do I really need 1920×1080? No I don’t, but I have this idea that I want to capture professional and personal events in the highest possible quality so that in 20 years when I watching the footage on my holographic futurevision console, it doesn’t look too grainy. I’m capturing well above the current delivery methods because, maybe, one day that video of A. Garrett Lisi at SciFoo (or the interview with Bray at OSCON) might be an important historical document. I’m sacrificing storage space for my own grandiosity.

Advice for other Rookies

  1. Throw Away Your USB2 Drives – When you realize you need an additional 250 GB (at least) to get started, you’ll run to Best Buy or Amazon and purchase some USB 2.0 drives. Here’s the problem…. the transfer rate of these suckers isn’t nearly enough. You need Firewire 400 (preferably Firewire 800). In fact, I’ve stopped believing in USB 2.0 hard drives for anything, the transfer rate is miserable, and if you use them you’ll be waiting around for hours for that 100 GB movie to transfer.
  2. Throw Out Hard Drives < 7200RPM – If your machine has a hard drive with less than 7200 RPM, get a replacement.
  3. Get a Desktop Machine – Get another machine. For about a month, I would just reserve rendering and capture for nighttime and I’d leave my laptop on all night to process (this is terribly error prone). After a month of this my MacBookPro’s video card died because MacBookPros are not designed to be run continuously for weeks on end. Once you start doing video, you’ll realize why people have desktop machines and you’ll need to get one. You’ll be surprised when you drop down $1300 for a desktop machine that has better specs than your $3000 laptop.

PHOTO CREDIT: Darin Barry photo “Videographer on Skates” covered under CC 2.0 BY