'Tis the season for goodies under the tree, so this month, I'd like to present you with a couple of holiday gifts that have dropped onto my desktop during the year.
I have the privilege of speaking with a lot of editors every year from all walks of our profession, and it has always been the policy of this column not to endorse specific editing software products. But repeatedly, the most enthusiastic group of unheralded digicutters I run into are piloting an NLE system that for some reason always seems to be flying under the mainstream media's radar scope.
VEGAS PRO STOCKING STUFFER
I'm talking about Sony Creative Software's Vegas Pro editing package that comes with DVD Architect Pro 4.5 (including Blu-ray Disc authoring tools), Dolby Digital AC-3 encoding software for 5.1 audio, 24p HD and HDV editing support, and can often be purchased for about $400. So how come I keep hearing things like: "Vegas Pro is the best kept secret in the editing business," from Fred Vobbe, who has been editing video projects with Sony Vegas at WLIO-TV in Lima, Ohio, since before Sony Pictures Digital purchased the system from Sonic Foundry in 2003.
"From quick V.O.'s for the station including multiple voice overlays, to extended packages, Vegas Pro gives me what I need," Fred said. "In fact I have a couple of very picky clients who expect something better than they can get from other local post houses. With my Sony Vegas Pro software, I can give them pristine video and a 5.1 surround sound mix at a budget they can afford. As a user-friendly NLE, Vegas is the greatest thing since sliced bread."
In addition, at home Fred uses Vegas Pro's audio capabilities to create MP3 files for the DX Audio Service, providing Books for the Blind from the National Radio Club.
Image from the "Dance Off" video source on Mini Movie Channel. Courtesy of MiniMovie He said, "Why doesn't Sony brag about how good this product is for audio?"
The chief engineer at KKCO in Grand Junction, Colo., Roger LaFrance, uses Vegas Pro not only as an edit system but also to flip formats of MPEG-4 incoming network feeds to MPEG-2 for broadcast.
"I really appreciate that Vegas Pro can run even on old laptops," Roger said, "although with a slower platform you might wait a bit longer for rendering than with the latest high-speed jobs."
KKCO is just in the process of adopting the AVCHD format with new Panasonic AG-HMC150 cameras, and Roger is looking to step up to the 64-bit speed of the new free Vegas Pro upgrade, Version 8.1. "Especially for news editing, Vegas Pro is the fastest NLE and easiest GUI to learn of all the edit systems," he said. "I feel more people ought to know about it."
Vegas Pro has experienced an impressive 50 percent user base increase in just over the last year. In its latest 64-bit upgrade for 64-bit editions of Windows XP or Vista, Vegas Pro 8.1 provides editors with, among other acceleration features, access to 8-core processing and a whopping 8 TB of virtual memory for faster rendering even with 3D projects. Regrettably, there are no current plans for a Mac version of Vegas Pro.
Sony Creative Software does have an enthusiastic users' meeting during NAB, and Dave Chaimson, vice president of marketing at Sony Creative Software, said he has resource grants and support material available for anyone wanting to start local user groups to share editing experiences. Those interested can contact the company at
www.sonycreativesoftware.com/corporate/contact.asp?id=39. Again, I mean no endorsement. This is just to affirm that there is another editing alternative out there, despite the fact it gets precious little publicity. At its price level, Sony Vegas Pro is almost an editor's stocking stuffer.
STAR IMITATION SYSTEM SHOWDOWN
My second twinkle for your holiday star is a really intriguing post-production technique developed by a group called Mini Movie Channel, a subsidiary of Mini Movie International Channel, headquartered in Luxembourg. Despite having offices from Moscow to Paris, Mini Movie Channel scored a Web hit during the U.S. presidential campaign with its "Dance Off" spoof of Barack Obama and John McCain. Check it out at www.minimovie.com.
After an unnecessarily pseudo street-hip challenge from Obama, viewers are treated to a remarkably realistic dancing showdown between digital images of the two candidates. The spunky humor of the piece almost distracts you from noticing how accurately the perspective of the candidates' heads and their expressive attitudes has been tracked onto skilled dancers' bodies. While you are on their site, also take a look at "Putin on the Ritz" that was recorded out at film resolution. Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush go Busby Berkley with a nod to Charlie Chaplin.
Yes, visual effects wizards have used sophisticated head tracking for years, for example in "Blade Runner" and to extend the on-screen presence of Oliver Reed in "Gladiator" after the actor died during production. But those films had the advantage of Hollywood budgets and access to the character's professionally filmed images.
The "Dance Off" video and its many siblings on the MiniMovie site use snippets of newsreel and other licensed source footage to grab and massage the visages of the two candidates within the constraints of a Webstreaming budget. It was created with a proprietary special effects process called "Star Imitation System" developed (and closely guarded) by their director of special effects, Yaroslav Kemnits. All he would tell me was they had used a relatively small sampling of close ups of the politicians' heads and interpolated them digitally to preserve their expressions and sync their Z-axis orientation with the dancers' bodies.
"At this time the Star Imitation System is a special effects technology providing a service we hope will be of interest to TV networks and movie studios," said Mini Movie Channel CEO Elena Muravina. "Kemnits can take a second or two of a person speaking normally, break it down into individual microframes, and simulate a multitude of expressions from those images. Then we incorporate special computer algorithms that Kemnits developed to match multiple motion elements in simulated 3D space."
Veteran visual effects supervisor Paul Ghezzo from Zoic Studios said, "What MiniMovie is doing is kind of cool, kind of new and fresh. It's nearly seamless, free flowing and captures the viewers' imagination. Their technology opens up new storytelling possibilities for this medium."
Here's hoping these two baubles enhance your spirits as 2008 turns into 2009. Remember, the only recommendation this column makes is for Season's Greetings and a Happy New Year to you all.
Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, CA 90266 or at JayAnkeney@mac.com.