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HD Growing Pains

HD Growing Pains

Articles - Directing

Writing this issue’s column, I felt a bit like Bill
Murray’s neurotic character from What about Bob?
Baby steps: Set impossible goals. Baby steps: Order
custom computer. Baby steps: Upgrade software.
Baby steps: Add money to computer. Baby steps:
Rent a camera. Baby steps: Spend more money. Baby
steps: Start over.

In the last couple of months I decided it was time to
grow up, put away childish things (such as my MiniDV
camera) and start shooting and editing consistently in higher definition video formats. My biggest
motivation: My heavy reliance on “chroma keying,” or the process of using a blue or green
screen to remove the background in video and replace it with something else.

Eric Jurgenson at Maine Video Systems tests the latest HD equipment.

I produce a monthly TV show called Liberty News TV (www.libertynewstv.com), where
I do a lot of real-time keying with the Matrox RT.X100 Xtreme Pro system. It’s a great
package for the price ( just under $1,100), but I’ve been unhappy with the keying quality of
MiniDV NTSC footage.
In my experience, trying to remove a blue or green background using DV footage is close
to impossible. You end up with a lot of “flitter” around the edges of the person or object
you’re trying to isolate. Only one tool gets rid of almost all of the flitter—the Reflecmedia system (www.reflecmedia.com).
This product consists of a LiteRing
and some special Chromatte
fabric. I tried one of these packages
a few months ago and it blew me
away. Unfortunately, I can’t use it
for the type of work I do, because
I often work with a teleprompter
mounted right in front of the
camera lens, so the glowing ring
makes it impossible for the talent
to read their lines.

That problem left me with no
option but to upgrade to a higher
resolution shooting format—HDV
or HD—to allow me to achieve
the flitter-free key I wanted. But
I learned the hard way that you
can’t avoid spending some serious
money to reach pixel nirvana.
Moving from MiniDV to HD or
real-time HDV editing is going to
cost you close to $12,000. Period.

Before I understood that simple
truth, however, I wasted a
lot of time and money trying to
beat the system. For example, I
thought I could save money by
having my local computer shop
build me a custom computer
by salvaging parts from my two-yearold
machine. Big mistake. After paying
$500 for a new motherboard, the technician
informed me that my RAM was not
compatible (add $1,200 to original estimate),
my CPU fans would need to be
replaced (another $140) and that I
wouldn’t even be able to use my old Matrox
cards in the new machine. So much for
downward compatability with my old projects
and files.

Despite the setbacks, I ultimately took
several baby steps toward my goal of higher
quality keying. Trial and error sucks, so let
me save you some hassles. Here are a few
hard-won recommendations to consider if
you’re serious about upgrading to uncompressed
HD, HDV or Beta-quality standard
definition shooting and editing.

WORKSTATION

No Cutting Corners
Just Buy It
Power Tower Pro Silent; $3,449.00

www.guygraphics.com
Had I to do it over again, I would take a look at a readybuilt
video editing machine from a place such as Guy
Graphics. I looked into their offerings and they have
packages that are guaranteed to work—and their attention
to machine noise is a major plus. Their top-of-theline
model has specs similar to a nice system I test
drove below. One note of caution: Don’t buy this model
expecting to edit high definition in real time unless
you also upgrade to a more powerful NLE, such as the
Matrox Axio LE.

CAMERA

Just Do One Thing
HDV-Yes! DV-No!
Sony HVR-Z1U; $5,946.00

www.sony.com/professional
This Sony HDV-capable camera, one of their latest,
seemed a logical upgrade for chroma keying. But I
also wanted the option to continue shooting in standard
definition for TV broadcast. What I found, however,
was that when used
in the standard definition
720×480 DV (4:3
aspect ratio) mode, the
Sony camera lacked the
light level sensitivity of
my old, obsolete Sony
TRV-900s. Also, the DV
footage I captured had
a slight flicker that I found distracting. In fairness, I
did not try down-converting HDV footage to DV, so
that end result might look better. On the other hand,
I shot some HDV footage with a bluescreen and used
it to test several keying methods. The bottom line,
which I’ll spell out in more detail later: HDV can key
beautifully, but only if you have the right system.

SOFTWARE

Software—A Solid Editing Base
Power Package
Adobe Creative Suite Production Studio Premium;$1,699.00

www.adobe.com
As part of my upgrade odyssey,
I also installed the new Adobe
Production Studio package and
put it through several weeks of
hard labor. This package, which
includes Premiere 2.0, After
Effects 7.0 Pro, Encore DVD
2.0 and several other upgrades,
served as the base platform for all of the software and
hardware I tested. Aside from one unexplained glitch in
Premiere, which required a reinstall after a few days of
use, this package came through with major advances.
Most notably, Premiere and After Effects have finally
achieved true synergy. Thanks to dynamic linking, I
found it possible to take a segment from AE with several
effects applied and import it into Premiere—without
rendering. That’s a huge time-saver, opening up a world of new options for special effects on the fly.
Premiere also has a new multi-camera feature.
I didn’t realize how useful this could be until I actually
tried it with some dance video footage. Just cue up
your footage and you can cut multiple camera angles
instantly. Other programs have also been improved.
Encore DVD 2.0, for example, creates far fewer bad discs
than its predecessor. My one complaint? Adobe Audition
is not my favorite audio program. It takes forever to load
and my audio files keep defaulting to it. Considering the
immensity of this audio program, it should include more
powerful de-noising and sound-scrubbing tools.

Improved Chroma Key Plug-In
HDV-Ready Keying Software
Primatte Keyer 3.0; $695.00

www.redgiantsoftware.com
If you’re not ready to invest in a complete NLE package
yet, Primatte Keyer may be your best software solution
for chroma keying. I’ve been using it for years. The latest
version of this After Effects plug-in has been written
with HDV compression in mind.
The most powerful addition over
previous versions is something
called “deartifacting.” This filter
applies some mathematical
magic that smoothes the edges
around your subject to decrease
the flitter problem I mentioned
before. I tested it on some HDV
clips and it greatly decreased the amount of distracting,
wiggling noise around my talent. One caveat:
Rendering took about three times as long when the
deartifacting option was turned on.
The new version also incorporates many of the
features previously found in Composite Wizard, another
staple of any chroma key veteran. Nonetheless, I
found myself still using my old copy of Composite
Wizard to compensate for controls left out of
Primatte 3.0, most notably matte feathering. The keys I
pulled were way better than anything you can get from
any of After Effects’ standard keyers, but not as clean as
the Matrox hardware system by a long shot. Primatte’s
lousy user’s guide may be partly to blame. (A company
spokesperson says they’re working on better docs.) With
detailed instructions, you could greatly tweak key quality.

Another Handy Plug-In
Faux HD for Mixing Media
Instant HD 1.0; $99.00

www.redgiantsoftware.com
For about $100, this After Effects plug-in quickly pays
for itself by allowing you to sneak in some standard
definition footage with your HDV project. The plug-in
works instantly, blowing up your SD footage to various HD sizes. I compared the look of footage enlarged
using Instant HD with the same footage simply scaled
up in After Effects: The enhanced footage has a cleaner, sharper look with fewer artifacts and less pixellation.
Also, the plug-in does some magic on still photos as
well, instantly enlarging them so that you can pan and
scan, creating the illusion of moving the camera over
the image, à la Ken Burns.

NON-LINEAR EDITING

Get Real (Time)
Real-Time HDV Editing—for Real
Matrox Axio LE; $4,495.00

www.matrox.com
My friend Eric Jurgenson at Maine Video Systems in
Portland, Maine was kind enough to conduct a series
of tests using different types of footage in the new
Matrox Axio LE system. This system boasts the ability
to edit HDV and HD in real time from the timeline.
I wanted to see that process in action, but also wanted
to test the system’s built-in keyer, which is specifically
designed to make the most of HDV footage. First we
had to capture some footage, so we gathered various
issues/63/images and captured them using the Axio LE breakout
panel. These included:

  • HDV
  • HD uncompressed 8-bit video, captured from the
    Sony HDR-FX1’s built in RGB export cable.
  • SD uncompressed 8-bit video, captured with a
    Sony Betacam SP
  • Standard definition compressed DV footage

When working with SD compressed video, the
Matrox system kept chugging even when stacked 10
layers high. When working in HDV and HD, applying
any serious effect would cut our real-time prospects
down to two video layers. As far as keying, we noticed
very little difference in keying quality between the HDV
footage and the uncompressed HD clips. If anything,
the HDV keyed more cleanly. In fact, the Axio LE real
time keyer really lives up to its hype. It pulled a crystalclear
key from the HDV clips. One surprise was that our
uncompressed Beta footage did not key especially well.
I wondered if having the ability to capture 10-bit instead
of eight-bit standard definition footage might have
improved the results.

The Axio system is pricey compared to other prosumer
NLEs, but it’s still half the price of most professional
systems and has a number of powerful features such as
allowing different formats to play on the same timeline,
a cool multi-camera function for event shooting and full
support for 24 fps mode. MM

 

Portland, Maine-based Matthew Power is an indie
moviemaker, actor and award-winning journalist
who studied acting and directing at UMaine and
Amherst College. He attended the National
Shakespeare Conservatory in New York and worked
as an assistant director at Hartford Stage Company.

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