We were in the French Alps, relaxing after a dinner with fine wine, unaware of the horror about to befall us. Then it happened. My girlfriend's uncle announced: "I've got a video of our trip to Las Vegas." Okay, so we weren't hit by an avalanche. But while watching seemingly endless footage of casino after casino after casino, I wished we had been.
To be fair, it wasn't the worst video I'd seen. Not even close. But today, you have no excuse for making boring home movies. The current crop of digital camcorders and simple-to-use editing software makes it possible for just about anyone, with a little practice, to produce a short, entertaining flick.
To see just how difficult it is to make a decent home movie, I attempted the task myself. First, I had to pick a camera. I wanted digital because the footage is easy to download to a computer for editing. I chose the compact Mini DV format with its small cassettes. The bulkier Digital8 option is a good choice for people who have a large collection of old analog 8mm and Hi8 videotapes that they want to play on the same machine.
Next, I considered the CCD, or charged-coupled device--the chip that turns light into digital data. The highest-quality video cameras use three CCDs to capture the truest color, but those cameras were bigger and more expensive than I wanted. I decided to settle for a single chip, keeping in mind that chips come in different sizes and pixel counts. Generally, the larger chips--as in the 2/3-inch CCDs that professional-quality cameras use--have more pixels, which are the little dots that make up a picture. I also wanted to avoid cameras that use software to increase the pixels because these "interpolated" images can suffer in quality.
I tried out four popular mini DV cameras, each with a single 1/4-inch CCD, ranging from 290,000 to 690,000 pixels depending on the model. All have the IEEE 1394 port, which allows for high-speed downloads. They all use long-lasting lithium ion batteries. A single charge lasts for 40 to 70 minutes, so you'd want to pack a spare battery, which may cost up to $150. The lowest list price was for the $799 Canon ZR20, followed by the $1,299 Canon Optura Pi, the $1,399 JVC GR-DVM90U, and at $1,799, the Sony DCR-PC110.
The JVC was the smallest and lightest, and it was packed with features, including video effects that allow you to add a sepia tone or create such transitions as dissolves and fades. It didn't have the in-camera editing option of the Sony and the Canon Optura Pi, but that didn't bother me. Why edit in the camera when it's so much easier on the computer?
While the lower-priced Canon ZR20 was nearly the equal of the others in bright sunlight, it didn't shoot well in lamp-lit rooms, although its tiny clip-on movie light helped. The Sony has a special low-light feature and a built-in auxiliary light.
Compact cameras are so light that your breathing alone is enough to make the handheld shots quake. The Canon Optura Pi has optical image stabilization, which means the lenses actually move to keep the image centered. The other cameras use electronic stabilization, which uses software to quell wobbles but can hurt image quality.
"RUN & GUN." I made my test film at a group bike ride. Looking at my footage, I found that the image stabilizers worked well, but sometimes not well enough. I should have carried a tripod, or better yet, as salesman Robert LePow from B&H Photo in New York suggested, a more portable monopod that lets you "run and gun."
When it came to picking editing software, I went with iMovie, which was already installed on my Macintosh laptop. The iMovie program--which is similar to programs for the PC, such as Media 100's IntroDV ($69), Adamation's Personal Studio 2.0 ($59), and Ulead's VideoStudio 5.0 ($99)--lets you edit the length of your clips, put them in the desired order, adjust color and exposure, and add special effects. It also lets you add titles and transitions between scenes, as well as voice, music, and sound-effects tracks. More powerful programs, such as Final Cut Pro for Macintosh and Adobe's Premiere for the PC, cost about $600 and are frustratingly difficult for a beginner.
Dell Computer spokesman Bob Kaufman says a PC user would want a machine with a minimum 128 megs of RAM, a 20-gig hard drive, 32-megabyte videocard, and an IEEE 1394 card. A Dell computer preconfigured for video editing costs $1,358, including editing program Videowave from MGI Software. My little Mac iBook, with a 366-megahertz processor and 192 megs of RAM, was up to the editing task. But the digital video ate up a huge amount of my 10-gig hard drive--one gigabyte for five minutes of video. A compressed MPEG2 file gave me about 20 minutes per gigabyte, but compression may affect the picture quality.
NO SCENERY. As it was, I had problems with the simple iMovie. First, it has no instruction manual, only a computer tutorial. When it referenced the "scrubber bar," I was at a complete loss. Following the directions exactly, I was unable to trim a video clip. It took a call to Apple for an answer that isn't offered in the tutorial (and heaven help anyone calling tech assistance). Additional help is available at Atomic Learning (www.atomiclearning.com/freeimovie.shtml), or you can buy an instruction guide, such as iMovie 2: The Missing Manual by David Pogue (O'Reilly & Associates, $19.95).
Once I had conquered basic editing, assembling the video was fairly easy. Sadly, I found that I still needed to conquer basic filmmaking: I did the shooting on a 100-person, 30-mile bike ride near Annapolis, Md. My biggest problem was I had too many clips of people riding, all shot from the same angle. I hadn't taken enough frames of scenery or the reactions of people as we rode by. Next time, I'll know to make a story outline and a "shot list" of clips I'll need. I also learned it doesn't pay to tape over old videos. The eraser heads in the handheld cameras sometimes leave traces of old data, which can then bleed through, leaving a pixilated version of the old image on top of the new one. One solution is to buy a bulk eraser and $15 high-quality tapes, but it may be just as cheap to buy $7 tapes to use only once.
Not all was lost. I assembled the most interesting images into a series of one-to-four-second clips, added lively music, and voila--a music video! By keeping the video a fast-paced minute or two, I didn't get any complaints of boredom. But I won't be satisfied until somebody asks: "Can we see it again?"
Watch extended coverage of BusinessWeek's home entertainment package June 3 on Money Talks, which airs Sundays on ABC-affiliated stations. Chech your local listings. By Roy Furchgott