A Starter’s Guide to Video Editing

The home video; for years now it has been a staple of North American households due to the affordability of consumer level camcorders. Home videos may be attractively priced, but they almost completely lack editing capability. I’m sure everyone has had to watch a home video that just seemed to go on forever because it practically did. The traditional analog methods of video editing are usually beyond the financial reach of the majority of home users, so the only method available was the archaic VCR to VCR dubbing platform. Not only is this method difficult and time consuming, it also tends to produce messy results on consumer level VCRs. Clean cuts, nice transitions and attractive titles were just not available to the average home user.

Computers eventually started to ease the video editing process, but this was limited by cost to the high-end professional market. The beauty of these expensive editing computers was that you could edit a video just like a document with cutting and pasting. This was called non-linear editing, as opposed to linear editing, in which a video had to be edited in sequence. These new computers were also capable of adding digital effects, smooth transitions and multiple layers of audio.

Finally the trickle-down effect has reached the home computing market. Home computers powerful enough to handle the demands of decent quality video editing! The lower costs of CPUs, RAM, and especially hard drives, have made the dream of good quality video on the home PC a reality.


How Does it Work?

Why, suddenly after years of it being impossible to edit video at reasonable cost on home computers, is the technology suddenly now affordable? Some of the answer has to do with the lowering of computer prices over the past few years, but mostly it results from new, cost-effective video compression.


The only way a home computer can effectively deal with the huge amounts of data required for good quality video is to compress it. To give you an idea of the storage needed for non-compressed video data, here are a few interesting numbers: a 9-second uncompressed (no audio) AVI file takes up 261 Megabytes. That’s 29 Megabytes a second. In order to produce a 20-minute video file (with no audio) over 38 gigabytes of storage space would be required. That’s fine for George Lucas, but average computer users cannot afford to buy drives like that by the dozen.

To get around this problem, compression formats were devised to dramatically reduce file size, yet retain acceptable quality. These compressors work by throwing out data unimportant to the overall quality of the image.

Take, for example, a blue sky: when you digitize this image there will most likely be thousands of shades of blue present in the image. The compressor takes those thousands of colours and makes them into one, in this case blue. Compressors will also take the movement data out of portions of the video file in which little or no movement are taking place. The consumer often has the choice of how much to compress, while considering final image quality. Our 38 Gigabyte 20 minute file would only take 2.6 Gigabytes compressed in MJPEG format, high quality mode: quite a difference in size, but not a huge difference in quality when viewed on a TV.

Of course, these compression chips and their software were very expensive to produce until recently; but today’s CPUs are so fast they can help with a lot of the work, reducing overall cost.

Types of Compression

MJPEG: The industry standard, capable of images up to S-VHS quality.
Indeo: Intel’s software compression format, most suitable for web based video.
Cinepak: The compression format used most often in QuickTime files.
DV: The format used by Digital Camcorders, very similar to MPEG-2.
MPEG: High compression ratio, tops out at VHS quality.
MPEG-2: Format used by DVD extremely high quality.

Edit Decision Lists

The other way to edit video with a computer is to do so with edit decision lists. Using this style the computer only digitizes very small, poor quality clips from the video source. Using these poor quality clips the consumer then uses his or her software to decide what edits are to be made and what transitions are to be produced. After the decisions are made the software and the computer control the camera and automatically do the edits. The only part the computer plays in the editing is producing the transitions and controlling the camera. This method of editing is often quicker than digitizing everything and there is no compression. The only downside is that a very high-end video camera and capture device are required with the proper controls and outputs. One of these control formats is called Control L-Lanc and is only found on very expensive camcorders. Many new DV camcorders can be controlled in a similar way but that is a whole article in itself.

Smart Rendering

Something that almost all new video editing devices do in some fashion is Smartrender. This allows portions of the video file to avoid being re-rendered when the final output file is created. Previously, all segments of a video had to be re-rendered when the final file was produced even if no changes (besides simple cuts) had been made. Smartrender can figure out if anything was done to a segment and decide to not re-render the file, saving a lot of time in the final rendering process.


All new video-editing devices let you decide about the quality of the final project you are attempting to produce. Depending on your destination medium, you can decide what resolution and compression level is best for your project. If you were developing a video for the web you would use a popular compression format with high compression and a low resolution; if your final output was an S-VHS tape or other high quality format, you would use less compression and a higher resolution. The ability to dictate your quality level is an important tool for desktop video producers.


What do you need?

The following segment will address what’s needed to start working with Desktop Video on a PC.


Before you can edit you have to have something to edit. Your source can be any of the following: video camera, VCR, and/or television. Your source just requires a video output of some kind (of course your capture device must have the same style of input).

Video formats are as follows:
DV: Digital format similar to MPEG-2, almost broadcast quality. About 500 lines of resolution.
HI-8: Analog, good quality. About 400 lines of resolution.
8-MM: Analog, decent quality. About 300 lines of resolution.
VHS: Analog, poor quality. About 250 lines of resolution.
Betacam SP: Analog, professional quality. 500 Lines of Resolution.


Get as powerful a system as possible.

Processor: P-II 350 or higher.

Due to the complex mathematical nature of compression codecs, the faster your CPU is the faster your projects will render. I have noticed that Celeron systems are almost as fast as their equivalent P-II or P-III processors while working with video. Most major software editing packages are planning to support the Pentium III’s new SSE instructions, so if you can afford a P-III it could be a wise investment.

RAM: 64 Megabytes of RAM or higher.

Video editing is very data-intensive and requires constant data updates. The more RAM, the less your hard drive has to be accessed. This in turn speeds up the responsiveness of your editing software.

Free PCI slot (for the capture device).

Sound Card: 16 bit 44khz PCI sound card or better.

Why PCI? Well, PCI sound cards tend to have lower CPU utilization rates than ISA, which in turn frees up more CPU time for compression and decompression. This lower CPU utilization also tends to create videos with better sound synchronization.

Hard Drive: 8.4 Gigabyte Hard Drive or better (get a 7200 rpm drive or faster if possible).

Video capturing and editing are just plain space hogs, so get the largest drive you can afford. 7200 rpm (or better) drives are recommended because the higher spindle rate translates into better data transfer rates. Because of the immense amounts of data being pushed through your computer while editing, even a slight increase in transfer rates will speed up your work. Buffer size seems to be only important up to 512K; larger buffers do not improve performance dramatically.

Capture Device:

This is how you get the video into the computer, a very important part of the overall video editing system. Most capture devices do pretty much the same thing, but the more expensive ones tend to do it faster. Get as good a device as you can afford and you will save time and effort in the long run. Of course, if you’re only going to be producing video for the Web or a CD-ROM, then you won’t need the extra speed and features of the of the higher end devices.

There are two types of capture devices, analog and Firewire.

Analog capture devices take the analog signal of a camcorder, such as a Hi-8 camera or VHS camera, and digitize its video into a format the computer can handle. These devices tend to compress the video file on the fly, as the computer captures the data.

Firewire capture cards only work with Digital camcorders (DV or Digital 8) with a Firewire (IEE1394, or I-Link) on-camera interface. The Firewire capture card does a straight digital transfer of the camcorder data onto the hard drive. Since the data is already compressed, further compression is not required. Firewire cards and Firewire-capable cameras enable the consumer to create video with no “generation loss” whatsoever, because an exact duplicate of ones and zeros is all that’s being used.

Capture Cards and Software

Capture Cards and Prices

Before you buy your capture card, do yourself a favor: do your research. There are countless Web Pages and discussion groups concerning desktop video and there’s a good chance someone out there has been in the same situation as you are. Here are a few cards that offer good value to the consumer:

Low End: (suitable for creating home VHS videos and clips for the Internet)
Pinnacle StudioDC10+ ($199.95): A MJPEG based internal PCI device, which is capable of close to S-VHS quality video. Comes bundled with Pinnacle’s own editing software, which is easy to use but not that powerful. A great card for someone just starting with video editing.

Pinnacle Studio400 ($199.95): An external device that captures a low quality series of files to your hard drive, and which, after you have finished your editing, controls your camcorder (via remote) to complete the process. Final quality is VHS , which is fine for home videos and the Internet. Comes with Pinnacle’s own editing software. Note: Your camera must have a wireless remote control in order for this device to work.

Matrox Marvel ($249.95): This all-in-one AGP card acts as a MJPEG capture device, 3D accelerator, 2D video card, and TV tuner. The video output is VHS to low end S-VHS quality. The card comes bundled with AVID Cinema which is very easy to use but not very flexible. A good choice for the starting video editor with little computer expansion potential.

Higher End: (suitable for better quality home video and low-end professional work)
Pinnacle DC30pro ($749.99): Internal PCI device capable of delivering S-VHS (nearly professional) quality video. Comes bundled with Premiere 5.1 and a host of effects plug-ins. Captures its own audio as opposed to going through your sound card to ensure prefect sound synchronization. Great software and good image quality make this a good card for the higher end home user.

Truevision Bravado 2000 ($499.99): This internal FIREWIRE device lets DV camcorder users edit video without any generation loss. This card comes bundled with the full version of Premiere 5.0. For consumers with a DV camcorder looking to make very high quality videos at a decent price this is the perfect package. The only reason a solution like this is not considered professional is the speed of the final rendering. Professional Firewire devices have a hardware-based compression chip which renders files in real time. This package is exceptional because it cost less than Premiere does when purchased separately and it includes a Firewire capture card.

Of course there are lots of other cards out there, with more being released every day; but the above devices are all considered good products in the industry.

To produce any video with all this raw footage on your hard drive, you must have software which enables the cutting and pasting and easy transitions unique to computer non-linear editing. Most capture cards come with some kind of usable video production software, but for your info, here is a list of the most popular non-linear editing software packages. In the future, I would like to conduct a roundup of a number of popular editing packages available.

Adobe Premiere 5.1 $895
Avid Cinema $139
Avid McXpress $2495
ClipView by FutureTel $199
In Sync Speed Razor LE $895
In Sync Speed Razor DV $2100
In Sync Mach Razor $2100
In Sync Mach Razor RT $5000 (RT means Real-Time rendering)
MGI VideoWave $99
Ulead Media Studio Pro $595

These prices are scary looking, but many capture cards come with a lite version of Premiere or MediaStudio. When it comes to overall flexibility and power among the lower end software packages, Premiere and Media Studio offer the best value for money. Both are very similar to the professional packages but at a much lower price. Programs like Video Wave and AVID Cinema are strictly for beginners.


Getting Started

You’ve got your software, you’ve get your hardware, you’ve got your very messy and unwieldy video footage of your trip to Rome, and at last now you’re ready to become the next George Lucas.

This article is not going to get into the installation process because installing a capture device is just like installing any other PCI device; you just plug and pray.

When you’re working with your desktop video make sure that you have disabled any terminate-and-stay-resident programs that aren’t absolutely essential to the operation to your computer. Video editing is a major resource hog, so running as clean as possible is essential to smooth operation.

In your own best interest you should get used to saving your work as often as possible; PCs in general are not the most stable, and with video editing you have to be extra careful.

Simplify your video editing by naming your un-edited captured files something meaningful, easily associated with the images. There’s nothing worse than not remembering that snzldunjim.avi is a clip of a very load sneezing fit by your large nosed Uncle Jim.

The Time Line

When you are actually editing you’ll likely be working with a time-line based piece of software. The beauty of the time-line is that you can more easily get a feel for the completed video, and a good sense of timing of transitions and effects.

The time-line method of video editing is used by the high-end professional systems like AVID. In fact many professionals consider these consumer level products to be excellent training devices for professional style work.

A Few Tips

Don’t overuse digital effects and 3D transitions; they label your work as amateur. Simple cuts have always worked best, as is proven by over 100 years of movie history.

Sound is important; many amateur producers tend to forget how much emotional impact sound and music can have. Use music when you need to heighten response, when the video images alone just aren’t achieving the desired effect…

Keep it short and simple; the best home videos show highlights of an event, not every mind-numbing moment.

Have fun with your video production; if you’re not enjoying it, then why do it?


Professional Vs Consumer

An important thing to understand about consumer digital video editing is the difference between it and the professional systems. A consumer systems like the ones discussed here are quite often capable of producing the same quality as the professional ones.

The biggest differences are speed and reliability. Most professional editing systems are capable of rendering (i.e., creating the final video file) in real time. Most consumer products are unable to do this…thus the price difference between professional and consumer equipment.

The other important factor is reliability; the professional systems were designed usually from the ground up for one use only–to edit video. Our home systems are often portrayed as the Jack of All Trades, with multiple roles besides being a high-powered video editing system. Professional systems also tend to not use the home computer Operating Systems like Win95 and Win98, instead opting for NT and the Mac OS, which are inherently more stable.

With a home-based system you may not be getting the performance of a $45000 Hollywood-style AVID, but you will be getting something that works in a similar fashion, and just might make your home videos watchable by those outside your immediate family.



When it comes right down to it, anyone who wishes to get started in the field of PC-based video editing has to be prepared to spend some time to get everything working right and learn the trade secrets. A good thing about the time spent is that you will most likely learn a lot about how your PC performs.

Spend as much money as you can afford for your output needs. If the final destination of your edited work is going to be a small AVI or QuickTime file than don’t buy that $6000 capture card. Of course if you’re going to be doing professional or semi-professional work then unfortunately that $199 capture device will most likely not suit your needs.

Non-linear computer-based video editing is now feasible for most home computer users, and the results it produces can sometime astonish those around you. With camcorder sales in North America skyrocketing and computer prices plummeting the time for the marriage of these technologies is near. Video as an art form is something that catches the eye because of our culture’s absorption with television. For a long time, we humans have been intrigued by moving images, and now we are nearing the time when almost everyone will have opportunity and resources to create polished, professional-looking work.

Have fun!

Ludo Morgan
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