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DV: Professional Digital Video on Your
by Douglas Dixon
(See also DV: Digital Video Format
for the Masses)
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 market, 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 consumer
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 confidence booster
is the ratification of the quality and potential of the DV format by the
professional video production market, which has enthusiastically adopted DV
cameras. Major players like Sony and Panasonic also have adopted and extended
the DV format into a wide range of professional video products.
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 advertising
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 experience shooting on
location around the world, for clients including CBS News and Turner Sports.
"DV is changing how people approach video. Even when people go on a
professional 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.
The DV Format
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 smearing, and, most of all, no
more accumulated quality loss as a tape is reused or copied.
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 quality loss you get when
copying an analog VHS or 8 mm tape. And DV camcorders have digital interfaces,
so you can connect them directly to your computer to edit your videos, again at
By mid-1999, consumer DV camcorders became available from a
wide variety 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 around 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 8 mm 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 format.
DV Video Editing
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 you want.
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), voice-over narration, and even
However, 1394 is a relatively new interface, so connecting a
DV camcorder 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 DV camcorders.
As with most relatively new technology, there are several
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 processing speed and data bandwidth (well beyond building
spreadsheets or even editing images).
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
(million 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 GB of disk space, and even a higher-end work PC
(around $1,400) has 10 to 14 GB, 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.
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
digital 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 local television station to buy news stories at $10 a
pop." He started working as a full time freelancer in 1972, with his wife
doing sound recording, and did a lot of work for CBS in the mid-70's. 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. Videosmith now does more
retail business, and recently opened an on-line store for video equipment and
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 Inside." The
show was shot almost entirely on Mini-DV gear, over days and nights in the call
center and out on the streets. "The result was stunning," says Smith,
"people were blown away."
"The show was originally budgeted for professional
gear," says Smith. "But we were riding around in police cars and
ambulances, and the professional cameras were too big, we would literally be in
their face. With Mini-DV we could mount remote cameras on the dashboards, 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 emergency call came in to get all the
gear turned on before the crew drove off.
DV Video Quality
The difference between consumer Mini-DV camcorders and the
professional 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 difference."
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 around $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. "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 narrative forms
and interactive features, where you can minimize the camera movement and reduce
The digital video compression used in the DV format can
produce visible 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 background,"
says Brian Connor, president of RSVP, Inc., a video production services, rental,
and post-production house in Broomall, PA. "But you're hard pressed to tell
it's DV when you're shooting a person against a blue sky on a bright sunny
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 effects (for fun).
Sony has confused the consumer DV market by introducing a new
DV format called Digital 8. The idea behind Digital 8 was to provide
compatibility 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 cassette 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 records 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 tapes. Sony recommends using the more
expensive Hi8 format tapes for digital recordings.
The 8 mm tape format is also currently less expensive and more
available 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 selection of options and prices.
DV looks like it's here to stay. Just ask the video
"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 [Changed to D2 Creative in
2002]. "It gives the producer
more options to acquire images, and it's all usable, and immediately
"Jobs lend themselves to this little format," says
Steve Smith. "The quality is stunning; people are blown away. Kids and
schools can turn out stuff that required a half-million dollar edit room 10
Videosmith, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, email@example.com
RSVP, Inc.., Broomall, PA, firstname.lastname@example.org
D2 Creative, Somerset, NJ
[was NYD2 / New York Digital Design, Lebanon, NJ, www.nyd2.com]