...But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct

Digital-video cameras and software--especially for the Mac--have transformed moviemaking

A couple of years ago, I bought a new PC and planned to use it to edit videotapes. After hours of frustration just trying to get the video from my camcorder into the computer, I gave up. But today, I am happily editing video on the same, now aging, computer.

The big difference is the digital revolution in video technology. Digital Video (DV) cameras record pictures and sound as digital data that computers can understand without the massive processing that cause so many crashes when capturing video from analog tape.

Equally important is the way DV cameras link to computers using a standard called IEEE 1394 (Apple Computer Inc. calls it FireWire and Sony Corp. calls it i.Link). The digital link not only moves audio and video but lets your computer control the camcorder as you capture scenes, eliminating the need to work with one hand on the keyboard and one on the camera.

If you are serious about video work and thinking about getting a new computer to do it, your first choice should be a Macintosh. Apple developed FireWire and builds it into most of its Macs as part of a push to make video editing a mainstream application. Only a few Windows desktops, including most Sonys and a scattering of high-end models, come with 1394 ports. Adding them to a computer running Windows 98, ME, or 2000 isn't difficult, but it requires opening the case to install a card. A fast computer is a plus. Although my old Pentium II does fine, I spend a lot of time waiting for it to render transitions and effects. Disk space is critical since every five minutes of DV content fills a gigabyte of storage. If you are upgrading, go for the biggest disk you can get, especially now that storage costs well under $10 per gigabyte.

With either Windows or Mac, you have a considerable range of software choices. The simplest programs, such as iMovie, which Apple bundles with its iMac DV models, and Microsoft Movie Maker, a part of Windows ME, are fine for the most basic editing tasks. Both programs will split your video into scenes as they are captured. Simple controls let you trim the scenes you want to keep. You arrange the scenes, add narration or a musical soundtrack, some titles and transitions, and you have produced a video. You can then write your production back to tape or save it in a number of compressed formats for Web streaming or recording on a CD-ROM.

One downside to both programs: Video editing is complicated and needs a printed manual, but you don't get one. For iMovie, an extra $20 will get you David Pogue's iMovie: The Missing Manual (O'Reilly & Associates).

Windows users have a choice of a couple of programs that are a step up, particularly in the availability of special effects and improved control over audio tracks. I particularly like Studio DV from Pinnacle Systems (www.pinnaclesys.com), whose $95 price includes a 1394 card, for its power and ease of use. VideoWave III from MGI Software, around $90, is less full-featured but perhaps a tad easier to use.

APPLE EDGE. The Mac comes into its own for high-end work. Adobe Premiere ($560) is a favorite of professionals. In addition to providing a huge assortment of transitions and special effects, Premiere, with a little learning, provides much better control than you can get with simpler products. For example, you can synchronize video to a specific word in a voiceover narration. And for the ultimate in home editing, there's Apple's Final Cut Pro, a $999 program designed for broadcast-quality video on a Mac.

High-end choices for Windows are limited. Premiere is available, but the current version only works directly with expensive professional DV equipment. A new version will fix that, but Adobe has not said when it will be available. For now, probably the best choice for DV support is MediaStudio Pro, about $460, from Ulead Systems (www.ulead.com).

No matter how easy the hardware and software get, video editing will always be a challenge. Multimedia storytelling is a complex job, and doing it well requires a lot of thought and painstaking effort. At least the new digital gear keeps the tools from getting in the way of this difficult but fascinating creative task. I wish I could say that about more technology tools.