Reaching for a (Digital) Holy Grail

Speaking Broadcast Digital TV with your Home PC

By Allan Lundell with Marian "Sun" McNamee

The Other Side of TV
A True Language?
New TV Delivery Mechanism
Miro DV300 Digital Video Editing System
Time and Frustration Tip Savers
Fifteen Second Summary of Miro DV300

At this point in time, there are some genuine Holy Grails of the digital revolution that we are on the verge of discovering. One of the great Holy Grails (one I’ve been looking for about ten years) is the creation of a feature length, broadcast-quality, all digital video production – completely done on one’s personal PC, where production and post production is home-brewed in one’s own den, living, or bedroom.

This is a very cool Grail, as it takes most of the cost out of the production (goodbye $50+/hr suites), allowing anyone with an inspiring script, a decent recent home computer, some prosumer miniDV video gear, time, and basic story telling know how, to create broadcast quality TV shows! Finally, like freelance writers with print magazines, a digital video producer can create and sell shows to all those cable/sat channels looking for original programming! And hey, if, by some remote chance, no one wants to buy your shows, there is always your web site, and it’s growing capacity to handle multimedia..

When such a powerful medium as television becomes home-producable on affordable budgets, it means much more than quality personal productions. It also means your home PC has graduated from being a text/still frame processor, and has become a true moving picture-processor, complete with special effects and virtual sets. This is highly significant, almost as important as the invention of motion picture machines at the turn of the last century. Why? Because another digital holy grail is simultaneously realized – the USE of moving pictures graduates too.

Moving pictures, previously limited to functioning merely as a passive story-telling medium, rise to a more exalted position, becoming a true human language, embodying form, content and interactivity (multi-directionality). Eventually, a conversation will be much more than talking to each other, for we’ll also easily send moving pix’s and sounds to each other as well. We already see this happening in many online chat environments, like the Palace.com, where keyboard-controlled icons and sounds are constantly being played to others in the online shared environment.

Once you learn this new multisensory language our species is evolving, you can talk to those zillions of people who are still just on the tube via your computer. ZDTV (www.zdtv.com) is doing this already. Why not you? If you’ve got something to say, why not say it using the most popular, truly global and established medium ever devised by our species so far, especially if you can do it by sitting where you are right now? After all, it’s just a matter of learning how to slice and dice images and sound to form messages, a kind of visual email, right? Why should just a handful of movie and TV geeks in Hollywood and New York have all the fun?

The Other Side of TV

There is nothing wrong with television. There never was. It’s just that so far, only half of the medium has been introduced to most of us. Most of us exclusively watch TV, and do not make TV. This is akin to knowing how to read, but not write, or like having only CD-ROMS but no hard disks in one’s computer. There was good reason for this imbalance- TV was hard to create, making it a big deal to produce.

Until recently, it really did take a big studio with huge lights and cameras operated by teamsters to create TV. Now, thanks to our evolving technology, instead of parading people through humongous studios, its more like Wayne’s World with better graphics, where creating decent quality TV is more personable and affordable on a beer budget. Where the tech goes out to where life happens, rather than bringing life to the tech. And soon, the interactive element of TV will find its place, once and for all shifting TV away from being an exclusively passive medium and more towards being a genuine human language.

At one time, not that long ago, reading and writing skills were known to only a few privileged enough to afford them. Is not TV simply a technical language taught only to a few because, after all, how many people need to know it to operate the relatively few one-to-many TV transmission stations around the country? How many job descriptions in the world say "A fluent command of the English and TV languages are required for this position?" What percentage of the world’s workspace can honestly say on a resume, "I speak TV?" Not many, it’s safe to say. For a nation of TV watchers, we must admit that our "TV writing literacy" is pretty pitiful.

A True Language?

The idea that moving pictures embody a true human language that can be learned is not new, with origins as far back as Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian pioneer of film editing and montage. As early as the 1920’s, he defined the "shot," for example, (http://www.unl.ac.uk/sofia/editing/montage.html) as the basic element of filmmaking, where filmmakers essentially combine shots to tell a story. A shot was defined as a image sequence that began when the filmmaker pushed the START button on the movie camera, and ended when s/he stopped the camera.

In the mid-1960’s, the pioneering anthropologist and filmmaker, Sol Worth, further defined the shot, the basic grammar of the cinematic language, as the camera shot (the "cademe"), and the editing shot (the "edeme"). Cademes are your raw footage, what’s in the camera before you digitize the footage. Edemes are the video clips on your hard disk, after you have carefully chosen what to digitize, your editing clips, the ones you import into Premiere or your editor of choice.

Still, this budding language didn’t yet embody some basic elements of a true human language, like the ability to have a conversation with someone else. Only in the last ten years or so have we started to imbue the cinematic language with such interactive notions.

Now, our CD-ROMs and websites offer many forms of media interactivity, and soon so will TV. Many industry pundits thought that interactive TV would happen in the mid- 90’s, starting with "profitable" ideas like movies-on-demand, but now that we have some hindsight, such ideas were a bit premature and short-sighted. In a real language, interactivity can be a very rich experience, as anyone who has participated in a good conversation knows. Such will be the case with interactive TV as the TV language becomes easier to speak.

One day, for example, it may be as normal to communicate images and sound to each other as words are currently. Today, clickable video is becoming the norm. Tomorrow, our keyboards can be used to send macros of meaningful video sequences to each other. In fifty years or so we may have miniature eye projectors sending thought triggered images directly into someone else’s retinas, creating a genuinely multisensory immersive conversation. Such scenarios can only happen IF we learn to communicate synergizing the "stone knives and bear skin" media tools of today, namely our home PC and camcorder.

And now finally, in 1998 we can begin to realistically do broadcast quality TV at home! But what about the delivery mechanism, the important "phonological" element of the media literacy equation?

New TV Delivery Mechanism

Global home broadcast stations are becoming feasible and affordable, especially with the Internet increasing cheap bandwidth to the much faster xDSL speeds over standard phone lines next year (400+kb/s, personal broadcast TV will become considerably more watchable than current the 28.8/56Kbs streamed offerings, more comparable to our 50- year old NTSC (Never Twice Same Color) TV standard to which we’ve all grown to love and hate over the years.

Now, more and more web sites have become full blown interactive multimedia experiences, having evolved from their humble roots as electronic newsletters. Those who make the most innovative advancements in this new media will not be the current TV networks or computer behemoths like Microsoft, but people like yourselves, those with a modest budget, and a genuine desire to create and broadcast stories and information from the sanctity of one’s own personal environment, without hindrance from others- a natural evolution beyond the current web site scene.

What follows is my first report from this media frontier- it is my hope that the issues and problems I have encountered and solved will save you untold hours of frustration, allowing you to take the TV medium beyond the point I have achieved. I look forward to hearing your feedback and progresses...

Using the Miro DV300 Digital Video Editing System By Pinnacle Systems

At first glance, the Miro DV300 editing system has a lot going for it- In one relatively inexpensive package ($799 retail) you get what appears to be everything you need to edit your miniDV tapes in the computer- a PCI card that not only transfers your footage from your DV camcorder directly to your hard disk via the Firewire port, but also supports a SCSCI III chain, allowing one to use the faster SCSI drives currently out there (i.e. Seagate’s Cheetah, Barracuda, Quantum Atlas III, etc.). It’s software bundle includes Premiere LE 4.2 (not 5.0) for editing and Pinnacle’s own DV Tools package for transferring unedited DV data onto your hard disk, and later, edited footage back to DV tape.

It also includes a plug-in for Premiere, Miro Instant DV, allowing full output to tape of Premiere projects via Premiere’s Preview mode, instead of having to use the MAKE MOVIE function. This Miro feature, if, alas, it only worked better, could save one untold gigabytes of storage space. More on this later.

As you may have gathered by now, I do have some reservations towards this system, based on countless hours of frustration I have experienced while installing and using it. However, if you heed the following Time and Frustration Tip Savers that follow, you will be spared much of the agony I experienced, and have a much more rewarding edit session.

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #1

Firstly, install the Miro system in a Pentium II, not a Pentium I System 7 machine. We have a 233MMX system that meets the minimum requirements of Miro, but Miro is not compatible with some System 7 motherboards (including ours), and Pinnacle Tech Support will basically tell you that you are out of luck if you have one of the incompatible motherboards. So, if you are serious about DV editing, do it on a Pentium II platform. I was able to get it working on a Pentium II 333MMX. The tech support crew recommend at least a 233MMX, even though it says on the box the minimum is a 100 MHz Pentium on the box. After checking out its performance on 233MMX and 333 MMX machines, it seemed pointless testing it on slower machines.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 1 addresses certain motherboards that do not support the PCI Bridge correctly, with these motherboards the DV300 will not work, any of the newer PII motherboards will support this Bridge, usually we have installed and worked with the DV300 on P1 systems, usually ASUS motherboards, or Intel for best compatibility with the PCI bridge chip. Another benefit of using a faster system is that the DV300 uses a software codec so performance scales with the system processor.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #2

Use a Sony VX1000 camcorder with the Pinnacle DV tools for transferring tape in and out of the computer. The DV300 system is optimized for this Sony camcorder, the de facto standard of prosumer digital video. I did succeed in transferring tape from Canon DV camcorders ( Canon Optura, Canon XL1), but only after much headache. The Miro drivers are optimized for Sony, even though they have drivers for the Canon Optura and MV1 machines.

Also of major importance, the version 1.0 drivers do not like anything except the 32 kHz audio sampling of the VX1000, meaning that higher sampling rates, like the 48 kHz standard on the Canon and Panasonic machines, will not transfer to one’s hard disk properly. If you try capturing at the higher sampling rate you will get this horrible digital screech in the audio track every few seconds, completely ruining your sound.

Pinnacle tech support has new drivers to handle this problem, but the new drivers have other issues, at least at the time of this writing. Drivers 1.5 beta (available for downloading) allow the higher 48 KHz audio sampling rates by the Canon, Panasonic, and new Sony camcorders, and have more reliable capture and transport control of the camcorder via computer, but they destroy the functionality of the very cool Miro Instant video feature.

Practically speaking, this means you have to MAKE MOVIE and cannot use Premiere’s Preview function for sending video to tape, thereby costing you twice as much valuable hard disk space, plus alot of extra time.

The only way around this is to capture video with the latest drivers, uninstall all the Miro software, then reinstall the old v1.0 drivers, so that Miro Instant Video once again works. But, (here is the arcane part that only tech support knows about) before you reinstall the old 1.0 driver, you must manually remove several .dll files that the Miro UNINSTALL procedure doesn’t do automatically. For those of you in this predicament, the files to be removed are cachex.dll, midcont.dll, mmaviax.dll, and aviprax.dll.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 2 The Beta software will allow instant video to work if you uninstall using the uninstall procedure (manually removing the DLL files, then install the 1.0, then install the 1.5 leaving out the 1.1 patch) this should allow Instant video to work properly, and will support the DVCAM format which is 48 KHZ locked audio, and many newer DV devices.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #3

Put all your SCSI hard disks on the Miro SCSI III chain. This insures maximal transfer rates of your SCSI hard disks. I found that even the slower hard disks work fast enough to transfer DV if they are all on the same chain. My UltraSCSI 9 gig Tomahawk from Micropolis, for example, proved to be a real workhorse, holding up under heavy work and extreme heat, unlike my 9 gig Cheetah drive from Seagate, which burned out after only one month of work. It’s replacement burned out in a month as well. I traded the Cheetah carcass in for a 9 gig Seagate Barracuda, and have been happy with its performance. To use drives with SCSI-I connectors on a SCSI III chain, you need to buy adapters that convert SCSI-I connectors to the SCSI-III. You can find them at places like Fry’s Electronic Supermarket or at online computer parts stores like CS Electronics.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 3 the performance gain of using the DV300 SCSI controller is because we use the PCI bridge chip to handle all data going to or from the 1394 to SCSI or vice versa. this eliminates the PCI usage for transferring files from 1394 to the SCSI drive, and from the drive to 1394.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #4

Don’t even try to edit if the temperature in the room is greater than 85 degrees F. Even at 80 F, the DV300 board starts acting really flaky- especially any operations involving DV in/out put. The Pinnacle DV Tools Capture routines seem to be very moody - sometimes they just don’t want to work, as if they are taking a break and simply don’t care what’s our schedule. My partner, "Sun," summed the performance of the board up this way, "When it works, I love it, but when it doesn’t work, it’s a time suck mystery." And part of the mystery is solved by minimizing heat issues.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 4 Heat is definitely an issue with the SCSI drives, especially the cheetah, although I never have heard of any problems with the board. Usually timeouts, are due to IRQ sharing, making sure you have the PIIXx update for Win95, or the INF updates for your chipset from Intel or your motherboard manufacturer. These will load all the correct system drivers for the system devices in Win95. Also make sure you have the PCI bus, device enumeration in Device manager set to use Hardware.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #5

Capture video clips less than 2 minutes each. If you do so, then you can back up your DV files on a CD-ROM writer. DV clips require between 200 to 300 megs of storage per minute. Writable CD-ROMs are a very handy and cheap way to store these digital files, about $1.50 per 600 megs. It also helps to have a fast CD-ROM reader to move your massive video files back onto the hard disk. We found it was worth the investment of $80 to install a 40x CD-ROM drive in our editing system.

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #6

Don’t violate the Windows 95 2 gig file limitation size. This is a real important boundary, meaning that no Premiere Project can be longer than 7 minutes!! The Miro Instant DV supposed to compensate for that, but it doesn’t always work and often has audio glitches associated with it. One very disturbing one, for example, happens when you combine a still frame .bmp or .jpg file with an .avi file and a transition effect. The resulting audio glitch is a high pitch stutter that is sure to wake anyone sleeping nearby.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 6 Instant video must use all the same format in the timeline, so first make sure that you have the optimize stills unchecked in he Make, Compression options. If this is unchecked and the problem persists , you will have to make movie on the still to get it into the DV300 codec (the glitch is caused because instant video must change codecs on he fly) usually the optimize stills will do it.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #7

Stick with Windows 95 and Premiere 4.2 for the time being. The DV300 software does not yet support Windows 98 nor Premiere 5.0. Using either of these software packages will waste much of your time.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 7 Win98 is fully tested and supported by the DV300 there are no implications created by Win98 because it is basically Win95 with added features support etc. We have had no problems with Win98. Premiere 5.0 is not supported currently and will be supported in the release of the 1.5 DVTools, the current release date is within the next 4-6 weeks.]

Time and Frustration Tip Saver #8

If strange artifacts start creeping into your project, like audio glitches, or controls don’t respond properly, save your project and restart your computer. This is normal.

[The Pinnacle Tech Responds...Tip # 8 This is usually related to the Preference file becoming corrupted, usually deleting the PREM32.PRF file will resolve any project problems, and most important for audio use only PCM, any type of audio compression may result in audio problems.]

Fifteen Second Summary of Miro DV300

The DV300 is a good digital editing system offering stunning results, provided you use a new Pentium II computer, Premiere 4.2 software and a Sony 1394-equipped Firewire camcorder, like the VX-1000. Any variation on this theme could easily degrade your experience and results.