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DV: Professional Digital Video on Your Desktop

    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 full quality.

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 background music.

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

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 custom peripherals.

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 contrast."

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 day."

DV Products

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 professionals:

"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 available."

"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 years ago."


Videosmith, Inc., Philadelphia, PA,

RSVP, Inc.., Broomall, PA,

D2 Creative, Somerset, NJ
    [was NYD2 / New York Digital Design, Lebanon, NJ,]