In-House Editing and MPEG Target the Middle Class

David English

Until very recently, the use of MPEG video in multimedia projects has been limited by production tools that basically have offered only two options-high-end and low-end. At the high end, producers could opt for costly outside services, including both editing and MPEG encoding, or equally expensive in-house digital video editing systems and costly MPEG boards for compression. At the low end, relatively inexpensive video processors, under-$1,000 video editing software and software-based MPEG compression provide passable video, but not much more.

But now, just as manufacturers have indirectly generated more animation and 3-D modeling in multimedia projects by introducing a widening range of tools in a widening range of prices, they are beginning to offer a broad assortment of midrange solutions that will likely escalate the appearance of video in digital productions.

New products from companies such as Fast Electronics, Miro, Sigma Designs and Avid Technology are giving multimedia developers a far greater choice in both price and performance. Avid, for example, recently introduced Real Impact, the company's first Windows-based video-editing program. With a list price of $2,995, the system is currently only compatible with the Truevision Targa 2000 video board (list price, $5,795; street price, about $4,000) but will soon be compatible with Miro's new MiroVision DC20, which provides 60-field, 640 x 480 resolution capture and output, as well as full-screen editing on a PCI-based system for less than $1,000.

Sigma Designs created a bit of a sensation at the Intermedia trade show last year when it introduced its Realmagic Producer board. It offers AVI editing and MPEG encoding and decoding for less than $5,000. But in a classic example of how fast digital video technology is progressing, Miro will soon announce a video-editing board that includes real-time MPEG encoding and decoding for less than $1,500. At press time, Fast was preparing to announce a PCI video board similar to Miro's DC20 at a competitive price.

Avid, known for its high-end solutions, confirms that its strategy is to expand full-screen video editing beyond a small group of video professionals and into a much broader middle market. According to Dana White, product manager for Real Impact, faster multimedia PCs and low-cost chips are driving video onto the desktop and fueling the demand for video content. "We're targeting multimedia producers who have traditionally worked with products such as Adobe Premiere and are now looking for something a little more robust," White says.

Producers should expect to see most of the technical innovations this year to come in this middle range as desktop video manufacturers strive for seamless conversions between analog video formats and higher-quality compression, White adds.

Avid has proposed a new Windows API, called the Avid MPEG Interface (AMI), that will pass cut-point information to the MPEG encoder. This could improve the quality of MPEG encoding for systems that run without human intervention and help close the gap between high-end and low-end encoding. "The goal is better MPEG, and this does it automatically," White says.

Taking the Plunge

Robin Danek, who manages VuCom Graphics, a large-volume production house with more than 30 employees, says mid-sized companies are likely to be among the first to adopt the new tools and bring digital video editing and compression in house.

"A lot of the big companies have an Avid suite or some other editing system already," Danek. says. "This will bring it down to those mid-sized companies, which will really eat away at the smaller post-production facilities that are targeting mid-sized companies." Already, post houses are cutting prices on some of their less expensive services in an effort to hold onto business.

"I'm seriously considering switching over to the Sigma Design studio," confirms Kilroy Hughes, president of Future Media Systems, a multimedia production company that runs the gamut from sales and marketing presentations to entertainment titles. His company currently edits its video on analog tape and sends out the final product for professional MPEG encoding. What would he gain by going digital? "With a desktop editing system, you have the ability to experiment in real time and look at the results," Hughes says. "When you're working with interactive multimedia, you really need to experiment and develop a look that's going to work in that environment, and not just use film- or television-oriented video techniques," Hughes adds. He says using an outside encoding service makes last-minute changes to video difficult, if not impossible.

Haim Ariav, president of Muffin-Head Productions, is also looking to do more of his video editing in house. The new lower prices are getting his attention. "All of our titles incorporate MPEG-1, so we would be able to view it on our production coordinator's workstation and see customers' files before handing them over to the design department," Ariav says. Because his company develops multimedia marketing material for the cosmetics and fragrance industry, where video quality is essential, Ariav doesn't plan to bring his MPEG encoding in house.

"What really makes a difference with MPEGing is what they call the front end-what's feeding the encoder," he says. "It's almost like Hollywood, where you have a colorist who sits down as the film is playing and tweaks the color to make every scene just right."

Alan Zielinski, president of SkilMaster, a production company that works heavily with the CD-i format, agrees that a skilled MPEG technician can make the difference between good and mediocre compression results. "You would think that MPEG is MPEG, but a lot of it is the technical expertise of the person turning the dials on the gizmo," says Zielinski, who thinks quality-conscious multimedia producers will continue to dump their digital video to analog tape when sending it to an MPEG encoding house.

"The key is the SMPTE timecode," says Zielinski. "All of the big production houses that do high-quality MPEG rely on SMPTE timecode. And the only place that you can get SMPTE timecode is in the analog world." He looks forward to someone finding a way to overcome this obstacle because "there are all these FLC, AVI and animations out there" and it's an unnecessary expense to dump to tape when you can "just keep it digital."

Three-Legged Video

Clearly, the production marketplace is headed toward a three-tiered solution to video editing and compression. On the high end, where quality is paramount and cost is less an issue, producers will continue to send their video to a post-production house on analog tape-especially if they're working with MPEG. On the low end, where cost is critical and quality demands are more relaxed, the low-cost solutions, particularly those that do not use MPEG, will continue to be popular. But with DVD and MPEG-2 just around the corner, the volume and quality of video in multimedia projects will undoubtedly rise at a rapid rate. The broadening middle ground is where producers will discover a host of new solutions in which they can be more creative in the trade-off between cost and quality.

MMP - David English is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.