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Tips & Tricks for the Digital Nonlinear Editor
by Don Collins

This article originally appeared in Videomaker Magazine on 01-Dec-98
(C)1998 Videomaker Magazine. Reproduction for uses other than personal is prohibited.

It's here. It's affordable. It's reliable. It's high-quality nonlinear digital editing. Finally, the frustrations of linear editing are gone, right? Well, sort of. Whether you just bought a digital nonlinear editing system or have had one for some time, chances are you've discovered that digital nonlinear editing has some frustrations of its own.

Not to worry, though, because with practice, patience, and creativity, nonlinear editing will not only be faster and better than tape-based editing; it'll be a whole lot more fun. And for all of the lost frames, system crashes and searches for more hard drive space, there will be times when you'll wonder how you ever got along editing the old-fashioned way. For most short video projects, digital nonlinear editing is just the thing to help you create a fast, fun, flexible and creative editing experience.

If you're new to nonlinear editing, or if you're thinking about involving yourself in this exciting new technology, chances are you could use a little help from someone who has worked with nonlinear editing systems before. Not to worry; we're just about to begin an editing project, so take a seat and we'll walk you through it, step by step.

The Same (But Different)
Although the technology has changed and you now use a keyboard and a mouse instead of an edit controller and a jog/shuttle, the fundamentals of editing remain the same.

Organization is the key to efficient editing. Your pre-production organization will determine how fast you can edit. So before you shoot, write a script and make a shot list to help you take advantage of your nonlinear system without getting bogged down in disorder.

When you begin editing, your shot list will remind you exactly which takes to transfer to the hard drive. Since hard drive space is at such a premium, you'll want to capture only the scenes you are going to use. You can preview your footage on your VCR or camcorder beforehand to help you decide.

Don't Waste Space
It's best to capture all of your scenes as individual clips. It may seem like a good idea to just capture one long clip and break it up later, but it's usually much easier--and certainly less space-consuming--to capture clips one by one. One of the great advantages that nonlinear editing has over linear editing is the random-access capability of the hard drive (see Edit Suite Linear or Nonlinear, in the May 1998 Videomaker). This means that the order in which you shoot or capture your scenes doesn't matter. Once digitized and on the hard drive, you can change the sequence any way you want.

When it's time to capture video, you'll notice that there are usually a large number of settings available to choose from. Some settings refer to the pixel resolution of the video (such as 320x240, 640x480, 720x492, etc.), while others refer to the amount of compression applied to the video (5:1, 7:1, etc.). The choices you will make for these settings depend on three crucial factors: the quality of your hard drive, the quality of your source video and the medium of distribution you plan to use.

Generally, as the video resolution goes up and the compression ratio goes down, the required data transfer rate of your hard drive increase. For example, capturing 320x240 video at 12:1 compression requires considerably less than one megabyte per second sustained data transfer rate from a hard drive. Up the ante to 640x480 at 6:1 compression, however, and you're looking at the four to five megabyte per second range.

Before you begin making such demands on your hard drive, however, you'll need to consider the quality of your source footage. If you're working with poorly-lit VHS, chances are that 640x480 (or perhaps even 320x240) at 10:1 will be sufficient. If you demand DV quality from your DV capture card, however, your choice has already been made (720x480 at 5:1 compression).

The quality you'll need also depends on how you're going to distribute your video. If you're going to output your video onto a CD-ROM or on the Internet, you can digitize at a fraction of the size and frame speed (240x180 and 15 frames per second).

Get Organized
If you're running out of room on your hard drive, you can split your project into small segments, edit each segment one at a time and output them back to video. Then dump the footage from your drive, capture your next batch of footage and repeat. It takes a little more time, and once you've finished editing that sequence, you can't go back, but it does help make the most of hard drive space.

If you are using a system like Adobe Premiere, you can experiment by capturing a very small image (160x120, for example) at 15 fps. This will save you space and valuable rendering time while you are trying out the 75 different transitions or the 50 or so different filters you can apply to your clips. Then, when you're doing more serious work, this initial trial-and-error period will provide you with the experience you need to choose just the transitions and edits that are best for your production. If you are working with a Casablanca or Video Toaster/Flyer you can only capture images at full screen. But not to worry, the Casablanca renders effects very quickly, and the Flyer performs effects without the need for rendering.

Depending on the system you are working with, your computer will create a picture icon or a graphical icon to represent each video clip that you digitize. These clips are then stored in a work bin, directory or project folder. Regardless of which method your computer uses, it's important to name each shot with a short, recognizable name so that when you have fifty video clip icons you'll know immediately which shot is which. Identifying each shot with a little description saves time. Suppose, for example, you're editing your daughter's birthday party. Shot 1 might be a closeup of the birthday cake, Shot 7 could be a wide shot of the family singing happy birthday and Shot 30 might be a tracking shot of the birthday girl riding her brand new bicycle. Wouldn't it be much easier to rename those shots Cake, Family and Bicycle?

Editing on a Timeline
Now for the part that we've all been waiting for: actual digital editing. First, whip out your handy edit decision list and script and drag the clips in the order that you want them to appear onto the timeline. What's a timeline? Well, you can think of it as a yardstick measured in frames and seconds (or minutes or hours). You lay a series of clips out on the timeline in the order you want them to appear. If you want to change the order of the clips, at anytime, you simply click and drag or cut and paste the shot to the place you want it. Most nonlinear systems use a timeline as the main editing interface, but a few do not. The Casablanca and Video Toaster/Flyer systems, for example, use storyboard interfaces instead.

In nonlinear systems that use timelines, you'll have at least two tracks for video, each of which has its own audio track. In between the video tracks, you'll have a transition track that allows for special effect dissolves, wipes or fades. Below these, there is usually a track where you can superimpose images or create backdrops, the same way the weather person appears to be in front of the satellite screen. The number of tracks may at first seem limiting, but you can layer tracks (in some systems up to 100 or more) together so that you virtually have an unlimited number of images and sounds to work with.

While we're looking at the timeline, note that there is usually a way to change the scale of the timeline. You can change the value of each unit of measurement on the line from a single frame to one or several minutes. This is very helpful, because you can zoom in to a particular spot for fine detail work or zoom out to view the project in its entirety.

Transition Tips
When it comes to creating effective transitions, the best methods of discovering the exact kind of effect you want is to experiment, play, be creative and have fun. In most digital nonlinear editing systems, you'll have more transitions and special effect options than you'll know what to do with. So go through all of them, try them out and then when your head stops spinning, pick your transitions and special effects with care. Have a reason for each effect that you use. If you're working on a video version of a children's story, then the page peel as transition may work fine. Resist the urge to use an effect over and over, no matter how impressive it may look. Remember, these effects are there to help you tell your story; they are not the story.

Rendering Right
Rendering is the process of allowing the computer to implement all of the audio, video and effects changes you've made on a frame-by-frame basis. With an ordinary computer, a large project, and/or a high-resolution clip in real time, this can certainly be the most time-consuming part of nonlinear editing. If you've captured your video in high resolution and at a fast frame rate, you can save rendering and hard drive accessing time by using smaller-sized copies of your full-size captured clips while you edit. Using this method, the clips are really only thumbnail representations of the digitized footage. Then when you're ready to output your project, you can re-access the full-sized clips and implement the decisions you made at a lower resolution.

Making Titles
Most nonlinear systems have titling capabilities. In most cases, the process involves creating a title first, then importing it into the nonlinear timeline on one of the superimpose tracks, just as you would do with any other digital still image.

However, some of the titling features found in nonlinear editing packages lack the sophistication and power that high-end graphic programs like Adobe Photoshop offer. The good news is that you can use a program like Photoshop to create fantastic titles and then import those files into your nonlinear editing program. One good method for creating an overlay with a video background is to create a title with a white background, then use the Alpha Channel settings in your graphics program to create a invisible background to overlay onto your video. Failing that, you can use a colored background (like chroma-key blue) and adjust your nonlinear software's overlay settings to match. There are many ways to achieve the same goal--which one you use will depend on which kind of graphics program you're working with.

3D animation programs are excellent for creating titles as well. If you want to incorporate computer animation in your video, you can do so with most nonlinear editing software packages. Simply create an animation (in either Video for Windows or QuickTime format) then import the animation into your timeline like any other video clip.

Editing Audio
On most nonlinear timelines, audio tracks are represented as integrated elements of the video clips. In other words, when you digitize a clip and import it to the timeline, you also import the audio portion of that clip onto the timeline. Like video, new audio clips can be overlaid onto existing audio clips in multiple layers to incorporate sound effects, background music, narration, etc.

When working with audio on a nonlinear system, remember to take advantage of the software's ability to adjust the volume of an audio clip up or down anywhere along the timeline. This is a truly great feature, because it allows you to control the audio level with great precision (much more so than with a linear system).

Be creative and explore your audio options. Get music and sound effects from CDs, or use some of the sounds that came with your computer. If you feel inspired, you can become your own foley artist and make up your own sound effects. Record them directly into your computer or use your camcorder's mike and then digitize the tape.
It's also a good idea to keep your ears open for sounds you might be able to use. If you're looking to recreate the sounds of the wilderness, for example, go on a hike and record some of the wildlife sounds you hear.

There are also many stand-alone audio editing programs like Cool Edit or Sound Forge that you can use to edit your audio tracks and then import them onto your timeline. You can perform some simple audio edits in your nonlinear video editing system, but these audio editing programs have a lot more power and flexibility.

The End
Actually, this is only the beginning. Digital nonlinear editing can open up a world of possibilities for you. Space and cost limitations will continue to be less of a factor. Soon, you'll be able to create a feature-length video with film-like quality, distribute it over the Web and become your own Cecil B. Demille. Just keep in mind that it all comes back to the same techniques that film editors have used throughout this century: good footage, revealing transitions, pacing and intuitive creativity.

This article originally appeared in
Videomaker Magazine December 1998.
Reprinted with permission from
Videomaker Magazine, Chico CA. Videomaker, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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