Kam’s adventures with HDV

I recently purchased a Sony HDR-HC3 high-definition camcorder, to capture some vacation footage with my family, and It’s been an adventure to work with. I got some good results in the end, but not without some bumps along the way.

First – some background… the only previous experience I’ve ever had with video editing was in the “a/v club” in high school. They had some SVHS camcorders and this crazy dual-deck editing system that resembled an audio mixing board, that we used to cut together little short videos. That was back in 1993. Since then, I haven’t really touched a camcorder. I have had some experience recording little videos with my digital still camera, but that’s mainly been short clips.

So with the background out of the way – here’s the short list of what I’ve learned so far:

Some eye openers for me

HDV is very new – like anything that’s very new you’re going to go through some early-adpoter pain. If you’re not ready for that, stick with something more mature.

Tape is not like a hard drive. After working with random access media for what seems like forever, I’ve forgotten what a pain it is to manage a tape. I think there are two ways to approach this – you can either 1) embrace it, and just do a lot of winding, rewinding, queuing, etc to get the results you want, or 2) take some pain up front and make it as “like disk” as you can. For better or worse, I chose path #2.

Software and hardware

You’ll need to buy software, and reasonably powerful computer. Sony seems to think that a $1500 camera shouldn’t come bundled with any software at all (not even a simple capture program that will let you archive to disk). This is really a shame – I realize most folks working with HDV already have professional editing cameras, but marking the HC3 as a consumer product without bundling software just leaves customers hanging.

There’s nothing built into Windows XP that can manage HDV out of the box. If you’re using Windows Vista Beta 2, then you can use CaptureWizard.exe in “C:\Program Files\Movie Maker\” (assuming c: is your system drive) to capture to DVR-MS and then work with Movie Maker on Windows Vista.

I’m still using Windows XP on my home PC (my wife has a “no beta software” rule” on any PC that I share with her) so that wasn’t an option for me. I started with Pinnacle Studio Plus 10.5 Titanium Edition. The basic version of Pinnacle Studio came with the box of Digital Image Suite that I bought a while back to manage my photos, and the upgrade to Titanium (which has the HDV support) was very inexpensive (around 30 dollars).

The general work-flow I had in my head was something similar to what I do with photos –

  1. record a tape full of footage with the camera
  2. capture it to the pc, divided into clips (like the ones my digital camera takes)
  3. cut together the clips in to a little movie using the software

Unfortunately – this was a path to disaster. Pinnacle did a fine job of detecting the camera and capturing the video in HD off the tape, but the editing experience was unusable. Pinnacle advertises a “time based scene detection” feature, where it will read the timestamps off the transport stream of the tape and separate your captured footage into scenes based on when you start and stop the camera. This feature inexplicably doesn’t work with HDV cameras. Thankfully it did some scene detection based on analysis of what’s changing in the footage, which is nice, but it still maintained all the clips in a single capture file. Editing in Pinnacle was fraught with instability. It crashed on simple operations like moving clip from one place to another, editing titles, and even re-opening projects where it previously crashed.

At this point – I switched gears and started doing a bit more research online, and came across “Frank’s thoughts on HDV”. I don’t know who Frank is, but he’s my friend. Frank pointed me to HDVSplit from Pavilko in Poland. HDVSplit does something very simple, but also very great – it captures the transport stream from your HDV camera into separate files based on when the timestamps change, instead of one giant file, and puts timestamps on the filenames so you can sort them out. You can then use any number of editors to work with the files. I looked at CapDVHS and VirtualDUB MPEG.

After my experience with Pinnacle, I wanted to go with something a little more overtly intended for use with my camera, so I went to CompUSA and grabbed Sony Vegas Movie Studio+DVD Platinum Edition with hopes that “Platinum” is better than “Titanium”. Turns out it is a lot better. Vegas was a little harder to learn (it has some tutorials that are awesome to get you through it), and is a lot more stable on my PC than Pinnacle was. It imported the M2T transport streams from HDVSplit with no trouble at all. The best thing about Vegas is that it can operate using “intermediate files”. So you basically take the transport stream and re-render it out to an AVI using the Cineform codec and then edit using Cineform. Then when you’re ready to save out your project, you can replace the Cineform files with your original transport streams and retain your original quality. It even has a “CineformHD” variant where you don’t have to replace the intermediates with your originals because the intermediates are just uncompressed versions of your original files at full-resolution.

After an hour or so of doing tutorials and such, I was able to cut together a little movie of our vacation, and also save the interesting short clips out to WMV-HD for use on my media center. Success! I was even able to create a lower-resolution version that I could then convert using iriverter (which I discovered from iRiver’s Clix video support page) to put my video on the new iRiver Clix I’ve been using.

On the hardware front- there are a handful of things I observed. The whole process takes a ton of disk space – one hour-long HDV captures to roughly a 10GB transport stream and the Cineform AVI of it is about 50GB (you don’t have to keep the Cineform file around when you’re done editing). Splitting with HDVSPlit up front, previewing them, and then only creating intermediates for the clips you want to use will go a long way to making the process easier on your hard drive, and also will save you shuttling around through the hour-long capture file to find the parts you want to use. If you’ve got the cash, it’s probably worth spending a little more for the “pro” Vegas 6 software (a lot more money – around $400, vs. $69 for Movie Studio Platinum), because it has support for macro’s and scripting which make the import process a bit easier. In terms of horsepower – the system I used was a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 with hyperthreading, 512MB of system memory, and an ATI Radeon X850 graphics card. Having a powerful CPU and GPU are super important here – especially considering the value you can get from having your graphics card assist with HD encoding and playback.

That pretty much wraps it up for what I’ve found so far… I’lll try to post some clips a little later once I figure out a way to get them hosted.