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by David Fox
Carrying an edit suite up Mount Everest sounds extreme, but not when it is just a portable computer. Canal+ used an Apple iBook and iMovie to get back material from the mountainside last year, just like an increasing number of broadcasters who are turning to the five editing packages which can deliver broadcast quality material from a laptop.
Apple's PowerBook has a widescreen particularly well suited to editing. Using Final Cut Pro 3 it even offers real time colour correction and titling in DV without any additional hardware. Or it can be used with the free iMovie software, Adobe Premiere or the new version of Avid Xpress DV. Xpress DV and Premiere, along with FAST's purple.field also run on Windows' laptops.
All of Apple's laptops come with FireWire ports, for DV i/o, but DV takes up a lot of disk space (about five minutes per GB). "Someone with 30-40 hours of rushes can't get it on to a PowerBook," says Stuart Harris, Apple's software product manager. An answer is external FireWire hard drives (which can be daisy chained), but to make it more suited to portable working, Apple has now added Offline RT to FCP 3, allowing 40 hours storage on a PowerBook. Apple created its own Photo JPEG codec for compressing to high quality, so users can see what they are editing. This allows editors to put together almost a final edit, just recapturing the finished material in DV in real time (which can be done in the background).
On the simpler iMovie, the skills needed are creative rather than technical, which is why CNN uses it in the field for journalists to quickly edit DV footage "and they haven't had to go through the painful task of learning to edit," he says.
Where portability used to cost extra, these laptop editing systems can cost less than £2,000 using DV, as with Premiere, which Adobe emphasises is platform and codec agnostic. "We are not tied to any particular model of laptop, Mac or Windows," says Mark Cokes, senior European market development manager, Adobe.
"Different broadcasters have different views on which Codec is best and with Premiere they can follow the route of choice," he says. "As the codec can be important to the person editing in the field we do not force the user down an unsuitable or unwanted path. It is also fairly forgiving on the hardware requirements front with regards to memory, speed, etc."
Freelance lighting cameraman/editor , Michael Sanders, has an Apple G3 PowerBook, bought last year when his Windows PC was stolen. He was converted to the Mac when a friend showed him Final Cut Pro. "I thought 'My God, that's good,' and bought it." He has a small, external 45GB LaCie FireWire drive storing 150 minutes of material - typically 5 to 10GB per project.
He previously edited tape-to-tape Betacam, "but to be able to sit on a sofa and do more than on the two-machine edit suite for just over £3,000 was incredible." He plays in material from a PD-100 DV camcorder or a DSR-20 DVCAM VTR, both of which are easily portable. "The system fits into a couple of bags."
He has a shuttle controller, but does most things using drag and drop with the mouse, and found the system very quick to learn. "I'm just absolutely impressed with how easy it is to use and how good the quality is," he says. "With DVCAM there is no loss of quality. What you put in is what you get out." It is also quick. "I've cut a four minute piece in under one-and-a-half hours."
Because it is possible to run FCP on a low-cost iBook "and come up with a broadcast quality edit suite," he believes "it is completely changing the game."
He has edited news material for Swedish and Austrian broadcasters and several corporate videos on the system, "and nobody can tell the difference." He also does video news releases [VNRs], which require captions. On his G3, this means rendering, but that only takes two minutes for a 10 minute VNR.
He still uses FCP 2, but plans to upgrade to version 3 for its new voice over function. Its Offline RT compression is not relevant for the short pieces he works on, but he would like multicamera editing (for corporate and concert work), which he expects will arrive with FCP 4. He intends buying a new G4 PowerBook and a Dual 1GHz PowerMac. A possible project will be on Digital Betacam and he will be able to go uncompressed for £5,000 with a CineWave card for SDI material. "The great thing about Final Cut Pro is that it can be more than DV," he says.
BBC News uses laptop editing for some of its crews, to speed up delivery of stories. It currently has two FAST purple.field systems (now renamed Pinnacle liquid.field), which it chose because of their tight integration with Livewire's store and forward system, Voyager Lite. Its correspondents shoot and edit their own material, then compress it from the AVI files used by purple.field to one small enough to send back reasonably quickly over a satellite telephone link.
One of the systems is being used by a freelance correspondent in Afghanistan, while the other has recently been deployed in India.
At the moment, purple.field is not the simplest system for use on a laptop, because it was designed for use with two displays (one for digitising, the other for the timeline), "so you have to flip between two virtual screens on the laptop, but they've addressed that on the new version [four]," says Steve Pearce, resource and development organiser, BBC Newsgathering. Other than that, he says it has the same sort of functionality as Avid Xpress DV or Final Cut Pro.
BBC News also uses FCP, as some users prefer Macs, and has also looked at Xpress DV, but not taken it further because it is not as well integrated with store and forward systems.
"FAST worked with Livewire to develop the product, so it does work quite seamlessly," he says. "We can just put it on a laptop and it is ready to go."
BBC News doesn't do a lot of nonlinear editing on location yet, but Pearce says it is happy to use any of the systems, including Premiere, which he also rates highly, depending on what different users need to do and the way they like to work.
Being able to meet a busy client at a motorway service station and not only show them how a project is progressing but edit it further on the spot, is one of the key benefits of laptop editing for animation producer, Steve Garratt, of Pinewood Studios-based Animotion.
He runs Avid Xpress DV on a Sony Vaio laptop with two external 60GB FireWire drives. This allows him to edit the Targa sequences produced by Animotion's animators on their Maya workstations and save them to DV or VHS (via his Sony miniDV camcorder).
The Targa sequences are usually given to him as multi-layered files, which saves rendering time on Maya, as it is much faster to composite it together in Avid as well as making it easier to change.
He also uses it for colour grading, matching files created by Animotion with material created by the computer games companies it often works with. A lot of clips also have to be resized, turning anamorphic into letterboxed 4:3 for preview VHS tapes. He also likes its ability to do eight track audio mixes for mastering.
He often edits at home over the weekend, "possibly a downside for the editor, but it does make it very flexible," he says.
Animotion initially chose Xpress DV because it was considering a project with another Pinewood facility, Outpost, which uses Avid Media Composer. This didn't go ahead, but Garratt is happy with the choice as he likes the user interface, ease of use and flexibility.
"We underestimated how powerful it was. We imagined we'd do offline in the office and do online at Outpost, but we decided to do everything on it and we were incredibly impressed with the results," he says.
They had looked at other low-cost systems, such as Media 100, but being DV native was important for the start-up company, as they didn't want to buy an expensive VCR.
"For the money, it is amazing what you can get away with. The quality is just so high and the render times are so much faster than Speed Razor. The only downside is the way it works with After Effects, but that has been addressed with version three." He also likes its reliability. "I've had it seven months and it has only crashed twice."
The big problem with laptop editing is the limited amount of space on screen, "but you find out ways to work around that. It actually makes you a much tidier editor," he says.
It was difficult to find a laptop with everything he needed in one package, so compromises had to be made. The Vaio has a 24-bit graphics card, incompatible with Avid, so it defaults to 16-bit, which looks a bit blocky on screen, making an external TV monitor important for correct colour matches.
Garratt is about to move to a new Mac-based company, but will stick with Xpress DV as it will also run on a Mac G4 laptop. Avid also does a version of its NewsCutter (news editing) software for laptops.