The Rise of Editing Appliances

Thunder crashes in the heavens while lighting bolts reveal giant reptiles roaming unchallenged over the surface of the earth. But far down below, scurrying below the firmament, a bunch of diminutive mammals are thriving under a radically different concept of life’s purpose by digging out their own niche in the hierarchy of evolution. Zip forward a few million years or so, and the descendants of those mammals are building museums to help them remember what those now-vanished behemoths looked like. Maybe the giants should have taken the upstarts more seriously.

Today the evolution of digital post production seems equally dominated by massive, super-functioning nonlinear edit systems. But almost unnoticed by the big guys, a new species of NLEs called "editing appliances" have started to scamper onto the scene. Even simpler than board-and-software set offerings, editing appliances are carving out their own evolutionary niche by providing inexpensive all-in-one packages in self-contained boxes that are distinguished by operating systems optimized for just one purpose – editing. You can’t spreadsheet your taxes on them, or write letters or send e-mails, but what you can do is produce finished productions with digital video quality and special effects that rival the expectations of the best analog systems just a few years ago. As a result, although they were originally intended for the prosumer or even videographer communities, editing appliances are beginning to move into mainstream broadcast applications. Mr. T-Rex, are you listening?

Applied Magic

A recent editing appliance that began shipping just last September is ScreenPlay from Applied Magic Inc. As David Newman, CTO of Applied Magic explains, "The basic ScreenPlay model comes with a 9 GB internal hard drive which, thanks to wavelet compression and a hardware codec, can store up to 33 minutes of Betacam SP-quality video at 5:1 compression or vastly more if you go down to 25:1. Its special effects, including dissolves, flying covers, page turns and more are all accomplished in real time when performed with one field per frame, which is usually sufficient. For those who want full resolution, transitions can be what we call ‘merged’ at a 60 field/sec level on output. Things like interpolated slo mo are always real time, looking very smooth with their two-fields-per-frame video."

Chuck Henry, a popular TV personalities in Los Angeles, serves as co-anchor of the NBC affiliate’s "Channel 4 News" daily at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., in addition to hosting the Emmy winning "Travel Café, " which is the only locally produced show in L. A. that airs in high definition. "Last January, one of the engineers at our station dropped some literature about the ScreenPlay on my desk and I decided to give it a try," Henry begins.

"We shoot a lot of DVCPRO tape, and I wanted something that could import IEEE 1394 into a portable NLE. While traveling through the Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates, I had heard Dubai was giving away a $50,000 luxury car to every 500th visitor to their airport and thought this would be an interesting story for my ‘Travel Café’ show."

The problem was, all the B-roll footage of this Venice of the Middle East was shot in Sony’s HDCAM format. But Henry found this was no obstacle for his ScreenPlay.

"I transferred footage directly into ScreenPlay from the analog output of the HDCAM decks," he says, "and mixed it with my own DVCPRO footage to cut the whole story inside this editing appliance. When done, I output back to DVCPRO and sent the package directly to air. The real-time effects work proved completely sufficient, and the final video quality – even with mixed formats – was simply stunning. I also own a major-brand high-end nonlinear edit system at home, but I’d been looking for a low-cost field editor to cut my stories on-location for broadcast, and the ScreenPlay performed just fine for me."

Draco Systems

Way back in March of 1998 Draco Systems Inc. introduced the first entrant in the modern editing appliances epoch, called the Casablanca. According to David Slone, vice president of Sales at Draco, a basic Casablanca system "provides sophisticated titling, transitions, image processing, unlimited video layering and audio mixing all in one VCR-size black box. A DV port is optional and Casablanca offers 2D and 3D effects with accelerated rendering. The whole editing system can be operated with a trackball, although an external keyboard is very handy for functions such as titling – and it is so portable you can set it up in a hotel room if you want."

That comes in handy for Paul Gray, whose company Gray Video Productions produces the "Exploring Alaska" show that airs statewide over KIMO-TV in Anchorage, KATN-TV in Fairbanks, and KJUD-TV in Juneau – as well as 50 hinterland villages over a satellite system. Sponsored by the state Dept. of Fish and Game as well as a coalition of Dodge dealers, "Exploring Alaska" presents a documentary experience about what Alaskans do for fun as well as destination tourism stories for visitors to our largest state.

"Last week I was kayaking at Prince William Sound," Gray laughs, "and next week I’ll be covering the river boat races from Fairbanks to Galena. The show gives me a great variety of production challenges."

Gray figures that without his DV-capable Casablanca, he’d never be able to produce his show. His background, after all, is in newspaper publishing and he had no experience in digital editing at all before he found out about what its fans affectionately call the "Cassie."

"Three years ago I started hearing about the Casablanca on the Internet," Gray recalls, "and I bought one of the first three that came to America."

Benefiting from the great advantage of not knowing how difficult nonlinear digital post was supposed to be, Gray was editing on his Casablanca within two hours of hooking it up. "The two things I like best about my system," he details for us, "are that it uses removable hard drives and it has a FireWire port. By keeping separate projects on each hard drive and outputting to DV tape, this gives me a complete postproduction system that lets me maintain deadlines – even with our broadcast schedule. I’ve had the chief engineer at KIMO, Rick Saint, look at the DV tapes from my Casablanca on his ’scopes, and he said they had as much luminance and color saturation as their Betacam tapes."

But the fact is that the Casablanca, having sold 45,000 units worldwide, has already been superceded by Draco’s new offering, called the Avio, which even though it just started shipping in April, is already in the hands of over 10,000 editors. "Avio will have an optional DV port, implements MPEG-2 storage and features dual stream IBP editing," Draco’s Slone tells us. "Avio … is not just a stripped down Casablanca. Rest assured, we will continue to support the Cassie and bring out new software for it. The Avio is really our first step in taking advantage of improved, more efficient technology to begin a whole new line of nonlinear editing appliances."

Neither ScreenPlay nor Casablanca is able to create or import an EDL, and although ScreenPlay can read VITC, neither system actually edits based on time code. But the concept behind these editing appliances is that they are of sufficient quality to start and finish projects inside their own environment. This requires adopting a different editing paradigm from those of us accustomed to an offline/online world in elaborately networked facilities – but that’s just one more manifestation of their unique niche in the ongoing evolution of digital editing.

Although editing appliances are still flying below the radar screens of the major edit system manufacturers, who knows which species will be building future museums to remember the past?