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Mad in Pursuit of Video:
A Learning History

I can’t leave well enough alone. I skim along the surface of knowledge searching for the next cool thing to drive myself crazy with. Barely mastering the basics of digital photography and enough Photoshop to post a decent image, I had the urge to Do Video – one of those overheated compulsions that found me at Circuit City charging a Sony Digital Handycam without a clue what to do with it. That was June 2001. Yesterday, February 1, 2002, I posted by first Quicktime movie – 15 seconds of my husband picking his nose, to gales of giggles from my niece and nephew. Ah, art.

Here’s what I learned along the way to this noble achievement.

Firewire and Fire Power. The Sony manual went into great detail about its stupid memory stick and USB connection for stills and MPEGs, but it was mum on transferring video to computer. I vaguely knew that “firewire” was the key. I took advantage of a catastrophic hard drive crash to upgrade to WindowsME, install a firewire card and boost my memory to 380 MB.

Editing 1. Luckily, the firewire card came with MGI’s VideoWave. This was fine for stringing together clips from my fishing trip with Maria to show our friends (“watch the girls torture bass!”).

Disk space. Must I point out that capturing 25 minutes of digital video gobbled up all available space on my 20 GB hard drive?

Editing 2. Flush with my success so far as a movie-maker, I abandoned the basic VideoWave and dove into Adobe’s Premiere 6.0. And I dove smack dab onto the concrete floor of the learning curve. Damn.

Long dark months. I gazed at the short movies on iFilm, AtomFilms, and 120seconds. Why can’t I do that? I would stare into my Premiere workspace, overwhelmed and confused. Everything seemed so monstrously unmanageable. I bought books. I poked at the Net. I groped for a strategy.

Breakthroughs. (1) I finally decided to limit my productions to one minute or less. At 30 frames per second, a minute is a sizable practice field. (2) Then I reverted to stills. Premiere has an easy-to-learn and powerful capacity to set stills into motion, with zooms, key frames and distortions. It can use Photoshop alpha channels to render the unwanted portions of pictures transparent. I chopped up some really bad pictures from a drunken women-only margarita party, laid in a 60-second music track (yes, fumbling to figure out what every 14-year-old knows: how to convert an audio CD track to MP3), and Gabriella Oldham: First Cutstarted playing. (3) I began reading First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham. My notebook contains 3 important points from the first few pages: Editing is about rhythm and musicality; emotional interpretation is more important than technique; physically manipulating all the pieces gradually induces the hypnotic state that lets you find the heart of the work. Okay!

Sound. Making a movie by setting stills into motion over sound is amazing. But suddenly I – an inveterate visual person – had to pay attention to my hearing. I wanted to make a 10-second ad prototype for work, something with a voiceover and a beating heart. Did everyone in the world but me know that Windows has a utility called Sound Recorder? I'd had a microphone attached to my computer for years without a clue what to do with it. And did everyone know how to explore the sound icon in the system tray? You can click on Options > Properties and open up a Record window that lets you select and fiddle with a recording device such as that very microphone? Holy cow.

A sound engineer I work with gave me a heartbeat .wav file and a 15-minute lesson in sound design. Don’t let the heartbeat overwhelm the words. Sneak it in subtly when the voice volume is low. I wound up buying Sound Forge 5, which comes with Vegas LE. Sound Forge lets you manipulate a sound file and add all sorts of special effects. It will even let you edit the sound on an .avi video clip, showing you the visual frames as you go. Vegas lets you mix several tracks into one, with more power than simply throwing more audio tracks onto the Premiere timeline.

Output. Finally, I was getting a few micro-productions under my belt. I got used to the idea that one minute of movie equaled one weekend of work. I produced them on CD-ROM in .avi and Quicktime formats. I avoided the stress of posting them on the web because, after all, even the more compact Quicktime movies hauled 14.5 MB for a minute’s worth of fun.

Quicktime. Once the compulsion to post to the web started nibbling irresistibly, I did a little more research. Quicktime seemed to be a well-tested route. Since I don’t have access to a streaming server, a “progressive” download was what I wanted. Fortunately, Premiere uses Cleaner EZ as an output plug-in.* To my delight, I discovered you can scale down the Quicktime movies for slow connections. My “Margarita” masterpiece went from 14 MB to 1 MB (slow connect) and 2 MB (not-so-slow).  Not only does Cleaner EZ produce the movie, it also produces an HTML page with the correct <embed> code, which allows the movie to play with a slender control bar for stopping/starting and volume adjusting.

And so, my “Birth of a Nation,” my Gutenberg Bible is 15 seconds of  “Uncle Booger.” (slow connect | fast connect)

What I don’t know could threaten to strip me of my “digital diva” designation – but as long as “diva” doesn’t have to mean “genius know-it-all” and might be able to mean “champion learner,” I’m in.

Published in the Feb 2002 Digital Divas D'Zine

*6.17.04 Adobe abandoned Cleaner EZ for its own output capability. Along the way, however, I upgraded to the full version of Cleaner, which is still very useful for creating a variety of formats.

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