ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

How It’s Done: Digitizing and Culling —

I’m going to go over the process of taking my video footage to where I can edit it. I’m doing this because there’s a relative dearth of explanation from people how they do things, and it’s just a nice thing to leave it up where others can find it on a search.

I made the decision when doing pre-production of the documentary that it would be on video. The cost difference is both breathtaking and depressing; while there is no question that there’s a noticable difference in image quality (simply compare this video shot of Richard Stallman and this film shot of Richard Stallman) the costs of film are many times more than even rather expensive video setups. I simply concentrated on shooting the video like film and lighting it as best I could with pretty good results.

I recorded my documentary on a Canon XL-1 with a special attachment (that cost $200) to plug in an XLR boom microphone. The tape format is Mini-DV and the tapes cost me roughly $3 apiece because I bought them in a 100-pack. (So it was $300, but I had more than enough tapes to finish the filming without re-buying.) The Canon XL-1 is very light, very easy to use, and expensive by some standards and cheap by others. I paid $2700 for my camera at a time that they were generally going for $3900 (mine had been a floor model at B&H Photo for a while.)

The result of several years of filming yielded a pile of Mini-DV tapes with labels on them telling me where they were recorded. These were stored in a large box:


Since I’m getting towards the tail end of the production, I’ve got a much smaller pile to show there, but in fact there are over 200 tapes in the set. This isn’t counting little tapes I used to record versions of videotapes, specific events, or other additional footage.

To edit the footage, I need to take the information on the Mini-DV tape and put it on a computer. Currently, this is the setup I use to digitize these tapes:


I’ll go through the different components so they’re all explained.

The laptop has a program called Vegas Video on it. It used to be called Sonic Foundry Vegas Video, but now is called Sony Vegas since Sony bought out that part of the company. This program has a video capturing program (called, basically Vegas Video Capture) which pulls the digital recording from a Mini-DV tape in a device and turns it into a large file.

This requires a device that will play the tape, and in fact my XL-1 has a digital video out (also known as Firewire or IEEE 1394) to plug directly into my laptop. But instead of using the camera this way, which would lead to unneeded wear and tear, I purchased a Mini-DV Videotape Recorder (VTR) called the Panasonic DV-1000:


This item cost me $1,000 to purchase in 2003, and has been very worth it in terms of less wear and tear on the camera. Otherwise, the only way to transfer the data of these hundreds of tapes would be to run them through the camera, one by one, which would wear out the mechanism that much faster. It’s got lots of features I don’t use in the slightest, and can take input from a variety of connectors, meaning that if I choose to I could record my TV shows or old VCR tapes onto it, which would be wasteful… but nice!

This brings up the issue of where to put the digitized video and audio. Each digitized tape works out to roughly 13 gigabytes of data before being edited. This is, by most standards, an awful lot of disk space. So, to accomplish this, I buy very large drives. Here’s what one looks like:


This is a 250 gigabyte drive, hooked up via USB 2 to the laptop. It can transfer data fast enough to write out the video flowing in from the VTR and through the laptop, with processing power left over to show me a video/audio preview. (When doing this on my main machine, I can’t do video/audio preview without losing frames.)

At the end of this process, I end up with a collection of large files on the USB drive, which I then hook up to my editing machine and begin going through.

….and now you know.

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