S.O.S. Camcoder

It took me seventeen seconds to get it out of the box, a couple of hours to fully charge the battery, and another ten seconds to figure out how to browse through the camera’s built-in computer and start recording HD video. This camcoder was recently acquired by the PLW to help us shoot and broadcast video content for our online media feed PLWire. Zeiss optics, a powerful vibration stabilizer and a 30 GB hard drive were the first three qualities that made me love it. And a very comfortable weight and size. I spent the evening shooting videos at a Media Lab barbecue party, and came back to my computer at night, excited, happy, and ready to edit. But it was not going to be that easy. A digital picture (or movie), you know, is half camera and half software. Just like non digital pictures are half camera and half darkroom chemistry. You are trading the silver gelatin and film for file formats and codecs. Even further, this time you’re also trading the videotape for a hard drive. At first sight, it would seem like the ultimate process simplification. You would not need to capture the video from a running tape anymore; you just open the camera’s hard drive and copy the videoclip files into your own. Perfect, except your apple computer doesn’t seem to understand your camera’s video format. At first, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem: just get and install the Quicktime MPEG-2 codec. It’s just 19.99 USD at the crApple online store. Nobody needs 20 extra dollars. I feel happy to get rid of them, but my problem is far from solved. Computer is now able to understand the video, but all audio seems to be lost. Quicktime Player, iMovie, FinalCut Pro… all of them are loading two channels of stereo surround silence. Argh. No sound, no edit, no fun. There had to be something in the web to fix my problem, but I couldn’t find it. SONY, the camera manufacturer, has no online support for it’s products, and the software CD that came with the camera clearly states in tiny letters: No support for Macintosh computers. I was in serious need for help, because a big and famous Computer Graphics Convention* was coming up to Boston next week and John wanted us to cover and broadcast it live. Important PLWire mission. Nineteen hours later I expressed my frustration to Brent and Takashi (alias Mud™), and it took Mud™ less than half an hour to find and deliver StreamClip, a free media converter that seamlessly extracted the otherwise invisible audio from the camera’s clips. Everything was going to be fine. I still had to struggle with some incompatibilities between AfterEffects 6 and QuickTime 7 that were turning the manipulation of audio in AfterEffects into a big pain, but no big deal, things could be done. Funny how a simplified storage device (hard drive instead of tapes) didn’t help much because it forced a series of data conversion complications.

In the Computer Graphics Convention I found a lot of cool techniques and an overall absence of interesting content. Yeah, virtual crap looks and feels better than ever, but I think movies and games are more shallow and meaningless than they were seven years ago. Look at Pixar for example. It’s the backwards trend.

Our videos are broadcasted at PLWire and archived here. I decided to try a very rough style for them, based on the idea of interruption, jumping in and out of the scene, and enhancing interesting statements by hand held camera transitions. I almost forgot to mention another remarkable quality of the new camera that we found very useful, specially when following this interruption-rough-cut style; It was easy for me to jump around and wander with the camera because of a bluetooth wireless microphone we used on the PLWire reporters that recorded the conversations with their subjects while I could capture interesting visuals around them. The final integration of the recorded media delivered such a rich content that I sometimes hesitated on cutting fragments inbetween the conversations. I would just limit myself to decide when to jump in, when to jump out, and how to follow what they were talking about by changing the camera moods and subjects.

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