Saturday, October 13, 2012

Overview: Video Editing Software

One of the strange things that happen to you as a parent is that you suddenly end up shooting lots of videos. Lots and lots of video. Gigabytes worth. Most of the time, this is not a big deal. For instance, if you shoot a short segment of your baby playing around, you can just post it on Facebook or YouTube, and you'd be done. Most of the time, you don't even bother editing the video, attaching a sound-track, or stitching multiple videos together.

That changes when you hit certain milestones, like Bowen's upcoming birthday. While you could just slap together everything you had over the past year together, chances are, you don't really want to put together all the videos and just say "done." You want to pick out certain highlights, maybe add some interstitials or captions, maybe even attach a soundtrack. If some of your shots were done in less than ideal conditions, you might want to go for contrast adjustment or color correction. If your footage was shot randomly in different formats, you would need to reconcile all those formats and output either to DVD, Blu-Ray, or MPEG format. Since I refuse to buy Apple products as long as I have a choice about it, this overview covers only Windows PC products.

For basic videos like this one of Mike Samuel riding in Downieville, the simplest option is the free Windows Live Movie Maker.The user interface is very intuitive, attaching a sound-track is easy, and you can easily caption, edit, and output to YouTube or WMV format. (Which I usually then transcode to MP4 using Handbrake) If you do most of your shooting outdoors with no color-correction needed, then this is all you will ever need and you'll be happy. I've yet to run into a clip that Windows Live Movie Maker can't handle, and I have not run into any length or capacity limitations. The software also makes full use of my quad core machine, and is parsimonious in its memory use.

When do you need more? The big one for me was color correction. If you shoot in fluorescent lighting or tungsten lighting, then just as with stills, the footage will look orange or green. Another possibility is if you shoot with formats unsupported by Windows Live Movie Maker (unlikely) or if you want multi-track audio (e.g., 1 voice track, one music track, and 1 narration track).

My brother had a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro lying around as shelfware, so I tried that first. Professional level software is great if you have professional needs. But if you're a parent pressed for time, the interface is just too much. I ended up running away from it in horror.

A friend of mine's an Adobe employee, so I got a copy of Adobe Premiere Elements 10 instead for about $25. This is the version of Premiere with "training wheels." By default, you get "Scene Mode", which basically lets you drag and drop clips into a timeline, rearrange them, add an audio track, add in title screens and then go. If you decide that's too basic, you can flip it into Timeline mode, and now you have an advanced UI to go with more advanced needs.

The tool is obtuse. For instance, to do color correction tool, you first select the "Effects" button, and then select "Auto Color", and click Apply. There's no preview, so you have no idea what you did until you hit the "Render" button to see the impact of your selection. "Render", of course, is the equivalent of "compile". It's time consuming, chewing up nearly all your CPU for minutes if not hours at a time, and then giving you a chance to see that you screwed up your settings only to try all over again. There's a three-way color corrector tool as well. Unfortunately, if you're color-blind like me, you have to use that tool with your wife standing behind you checking to make sure you didn't screw up too badly with the tool. This is not a tool for the faint of heart, but it gets the job done.

The worst part about Adobe Premiere Elements is that it is SLOW. By this, I don't just mean the frustrating "render" times. The interface is laggy, at times taking forever to respond to your mouse clicks or dragging the slider bars around as you edit your video. I have no idea what it is the software is doing underneath the covers. The only thing I could think of is that the geniuses at Adobe decided to use Ruby to write the UI and then implemented it in the most naive way possible. The software doesn't crash often, but it does crash often enough that I'm grateful for the frequency Premiere Elements "auto-saves" for you.

The most challenging part of the video editing process is selecting the clips and getting it into the Premiere Elements for you to use. You might think that since Lightroom and Premiere Elements were both Adobe tools, there'd be a simple drag-and-drop interface between Lightroom and Premiere Elements so that stuff that's flagged in Lightroom can easily be selected for use in a video. Well, you'd be wrong. There's no integration at all between the two pieces of software, which means that I'm forever clicking "Show in Explorer" in Lightroom, and then manually dragging the file into Premiere Elements. This is the kind of stuff that makes me wish that Microsoft would get into the video editing/photo editing business just so Adobe has some competition in this area.

If editing videos taxes your patience, rendering it will push your hardware setup to the limits. I have a i7-920 processor with 10GB of RAM installed. Pushing the "Export" button will make my PC go away for 2-3 hours at a time in order to render a 1 hour video. With the CPU monitor running, I could easily see that all 4 cores were in full use --- the CPU fan runs at full speed and nearly everything else on the PC slows to a crawl. I'm the kind of person who's never tempted to buy faster hardware as long as my existing computer runs, and the long render times caused me to start browsing around to see if faster hardware would reduce my pain for this once a year event. (Turns out the answer is "no": I bought my PC in 2009, and in 3 years, PC CPUs have increased in speed by only 2X --- not nearly enough to justify the upgrade. When 8 core CPUs become cheap enough for consumer use, I might revisit)

Despite all this, I'm sticking with Premiere Elements 10 for my big video projects. That's because the learning curve is so steep that once you've gotten comfortable with the software, it's not even worth considering say, upgrading to Elements 11 without a compelling feature (such as say, software image stabilization) that would make it worth paying that learning curve price all over again. Such is the state of video editing today. In any case, Intel has said for years that in-home photo editing would be a compelling reason for consumers to upgrade CPUs, and I disagree. The state of software is such that I don't see the typical user doing this, ever. It's just too hard.
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