Digital Video Technobabble

This post was published more than a few years ago (on 1999-04-24) and may contain inaccurate technical information, outmoded thoughts, or cringe takes. Proceed at your own risk.

The world of digital video is evolving at an alarming rate. This week, at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, hundreds of companies gathered to show off their latest hardware and software. The message most heard at the convention is to move to digital production now.

Digital video has been around for a while. I recall using one of the first few “professional” level complete systems back in 1992— the Radius VideoVision. This was a board that plugged into your Macintosh Quadra (this was before the PowerPC chip) and allowed you to digitise video and audio (sometimes even together!) and edit them with a programme called Adobe Premiere. The quality wasn't that great, the audio often ran out of sync with the video, and it took forever to render any transitions or animations you wanted to do. There were also Avid and Targa digital video systems at that time, and they were all roughly equal in capability, with Avid perhaps slightly ahead.

Now, a mere seven years later, Radius has become Digital Origin and has gone to completely consumer DV based editing. Avid has an incredibly successful line of high-end video and audio production products as well as a great tool for film editing, and Targa is no slouch in the video world either. Tape formats are starting to move towards digital formats , and there are now interfaces (SDI and FireWire) that allow this digital video to travel directly from the tape to your editing computer and back to the tape with no generational loss whatsoever. If that’s not clear— have you ever received an audio or video tape that’s been copied for you from a friend, who got it from her friend, and so on, making your copy sound and look muddy and unintelligible? Well, that’s all gone now.

What is alarming, though, gives itself away by the fact that Avid is now starting to leave the Macintosh platform, beginning with their high-end Media Composer hardware. Many people are saying that since this hardware requires four open slots inside the computer, and the most recent Macs only contain three, that is the reason Avid has decided to move to Windows NT. I don't believe this is the case, although it’s a good obvious reason.

The not-so-obvious reason is because the world is moving to QuickTime. QuickTime is Apple Computer’s standard for video, audio, and new media distribution. QuickTime is the basis for the forthcoming MPEG-4 standard, which will soon be used in DVDs, all over the web, and possibly even the transmission of digital television. With the release of QuickTime version 4 this week at NAB, QuickTime also adds true streaming capabilities, which means they are now competing directly with the previously de facto standard of RealVideo, which lets you watch live or pre-recorded video on your computer in real time— no need to wait for a big file to download as before— now you get to watch it as soon as you click to view it.

The new consumer digital video standard, DV, and its little brother MiniDV, has mad it incredibly easy for the average Joe to make his own movies. No longer do you have to add hardware costing several thousands of dollars to your computer just to be able to turn your regular analogue video (VHS, Hi-8) into digital bits you can then edit— all you need is a DV camcorder and a FireWire port on your computer to digitally transfer your video with no loss in quality. QuickTime, as it happens, handles DV very well. Apple has taken advantage of this in creating Final Cut— editing software that lets you use DV video transferred directly to your computer, or even analogue video captured from add-on boards. This software is amazingly powerful for its low cost, making it possible to purchase everything you need to make your own movies— Macintosh, camcorder, editing software— for under $5,000.

This, I believe, is why Avid is leaving the Mac. Avid doesn’t work all that well with DV, and they’ve never really been all that compatible with QuickTime. If QuickTime is the way the non-linear production world, and especially Apple, is moving, then I dare say that Avid’s aim is to go find another sandbox in which to play, rather than spend the time modifying their hardware to fit the new standard.

This new standard of low-cost high-quality video production, the pundits say, will bring about the democratisation of film. I'm inclined to believe them. Even now, I could produce something relatively inexpensively on video and have it transferred up to film. In the future, this may not even be necessary, as June’s showing of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace in four digital projection theatres foreshadows— eventually we won't even use film, and the production line will become completely digital. A lot of very talented people who never had the resources to make a film before will be able to do so. We’ll see a lot more creative productions from people we’ve never heard of before. Sure there’ll still be big-budget spectaculars, but to me, individual creativity is what filmmaking is all about.