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By Stephen H. Wildstrom For the great majority of video-camera owners who want to turn their work into movies they can watch on a computer or DVD player, simple, inexpensive software is more than adequate. My favorite in this category is iMovie, which Apple bundles with every new Macintosh. Windows users can do fine with Pinnacle Systems' Studio DV ($100, $130 with a card to add FireWire digital video-capture capability to your desktop or laptop.)
While these tools offer amazing capabilities, some video makers need a lot more, including those who want to produce videos for business or organizations, and hobbyists who want to get into serious video production. It takes some investment of both time and money, but the good news is serious amateurs can now find tools that until recently were accessible only to pros with a studio-editing booth and tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars worth of equipment at their disposal.
I spent some time working with three middling to high-end video packages: The $599 Pinnacle Edition DV Windows (www.pinnaclesys.com), the $999 Apple Final Cut Pro 3 (www.apple.com/finalcutpro/) for the Mac, and the $1,599 Avid Xpress DV 3.5 (www.avid.com) for both Windows and Mac. Two other packages in this general range are Ulead MediaStudio Pro 6.5 for Windows ($495) and Adobe Premiere 6.0 for Windows or Mac ($599). However, I didn't test those two because reasonable evaluation of any of these programs requires spending hours with them, forcing me to limit myself to just three.
AUDIO-VIDEO SYNC. I produced the same project on each system: a 17-minute video of an outdoor a capella choral concert that I taped last summer. One reason I abandoned the consumer software I've been using was the need to split off the sound track so that I could process it in separate audio-editing software. That way, I could improve the sound and get rid of as much extraneous noise as possible, then reunite it with the video and maintain audio-video synchronization.
Unlike consumer software, all of these programs are designed to facilitate separate audio processing. And while I used only a tiny fraction of each program's capabilities, it was enough to get a feel for what they could do and how easily they could do it. In each case, I took the program through the entire process, from capturing the video and audio from DV tape through readying the finished movie for transfer to a DVD.
You'll find similar core features in each system. You can create multiple tracks of video, which are then combined, or "composited," to create a single picture. The most common use for this technique is to superimpose titles over video images, but it can be used for a wide range of effects.
WHOLE NEW INTERFACE. These software packages all allow for multiple audio tracks, along with the ability to control the volume on each when they're "mixed down" to create the final sound track. The programs also support an array of two- and three-dimensional effects, ranging from simple dissolves between scenes to flying, spinning 3D logos of the sort that can make you dizzy watching the National Football League on Fox.
Video editing is something of an all-consuming task that takes over your entire computer system. Each of these programs largely replaces the standard Windows or Mac user interface. Pinnacle Edition goes the furthest, presenting you with a gray-on-gray screen with plenty of unfamiliar-looking buttons and icons. Though I spent a lot of time working with this software, I never became entirely comfortable with it. Furthermore, it sometimes affected my standard Windows settings even after I had quit Edition, leaving my screen background -- usually blue -- a sickly gray.
Edition also lacks good hands-on tutorials that can be a huge help in mastering such complex software. It does come with a CD-ROM that demonstrates program use, but that's a poor substitute for hands-on practice.
KNOW YOUR MODE. Avid Xpress turned out to be my favorite. The user interface is immediately familiar to anyone who has done commercial digital-video editing, since Avid systems (some costing upwards of $250,000) have been the professional standard for years, and Xpress maintains the look and feel of those dedicated systems. Even without the advantage of that experience, I found the interface reasonably intuitive.
An example: When working on the video timeline, you're either in "insert" or "overwrite" mode. When you insert new video into a scene, everything beyond it just slides down the timeline. When you overwrite, an amount of the scene equal to the amount you are adding disappears. Although mistakes can be reversed with a multiple-step undo command, you save a lot of time if you're always aware of which mode you are in, and Xpress' prominent color-coding makes it obvious. I also think it has the simplest way of indicating whether an insert or overwrite would affect video, audio, or both.
Xpress is the only one of the three programs that runs on both Windows and Macs and, with some slight differences in keyboard shortcuts, is essentially the same program on both platforms. When you buy it, you get the software for both. However, the program will run only when a key is inserted in a computer's USB port, so don't count on running it on two systems at once.
RARE COMPLAINT. Avid Xpress and Apple Final Cut both offer features that are utterly useless to the great majority of amateurs but absolutely vital to a few. TV stations impose tight technical restrictions on the characteristics, such as the intensity and colors of video and the volume, or gain, of audio to be broadcast. These two packages offer tools that let you check your production to make certain it's broadcast-legal.
Final Cut offers an immense richness of features. Apple designed it specifically to break the hold Avid has had on professional video editing, much of which is Mac-based. But while it strives to outfeature Xpress at a lower price, I found it by far the most difficult of the three programs to learn.
It's rare to complain about a confusing user interface in a Mac program -- especially one from Apple -- but that's what I found with Final Cut. I suspect, however, that it simply demands more time than I was able to give and that those with persistence will be richly rewarded with a highly competent editing system.
HOURS OF RENDERING. One note on hardware for any of these systems: Video editing is about the most demanding task you can perform on a personal computer. These programs will cheerfully devour all the processor speed, memory, and disk space you can throw at them. Digital video captured from DV tape fills a gigabyte of disk space in five minutes, and the programs demand substantial additional space for temporary files.
The last production step, in which all the audio and video are rendered into final form, including compression into the MPEG-2 format used on DVDs, is very intense work. Depending on your production's complexity and the computer's speed, it can take many hours to complete the final rendering of a hour's worth of video.
People who do this sort of thing for a living generally use workstation-class computers with two or more processors and massive disk-drive arrays. Amateur video editors can certainly get by with much more modest equipment, especially if you just let any rendering be done overnight. But you'll want at least a reasonably speedy Pentium 4 desktop -- this isn't laptop work -- with at least 512 megabytes of memory to avoid frustrating delays while editing. In the Mac world, the new dual 1-gigahertz processor G4 PowerMac is ideal, but any G4 PowerMac with 512 MB or more of RAM is acceptable. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online