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In Features, Issues

Think of digital video editing and you’ll probably conjure up images of a Mac-based Final Cut Pro system. But there are other options out there, some of them even running on PC systems. Filmmaker and editor Scott Saunders takes a look at the new Avid/IBM collaboration, the XPress DV.

IBM/Avid Xpress DV System, $8,000 and up.
For additional info, contact: 1-800-IBM-7255 or visit ibm.com

Filmmakers who are attracted to Final Cut Pro’s native DV-editing capabilities but who need tighter compatibility with Avid and ProTools systems should take a look at Avid’s Xpress DV. The result of an alliance between Avid and IBM, Xpress DV is built around an IBM Pentium III computer running Windows NT, and it seems to offer more evidence of Avid’s gradual move away from the Apple platform. Xpress DV is ideally suited to facilities wishing to augment their existing Avids with a DV-based editor. Xpress DV’s editing interface is very similar to the one you'll see on Media and Film Composers, and most Avid editors will be able to drive Xpress DV with virtually no training. My demo system worked right out of the box, and I was editing within minutes of turning on the computer. Although the interface does not have all the features of a Media Composer, I was surprised by how many features are included in this sub-$8,000 machine.

As the name implies, Xpress DV is a DV-only editing system; there is simply no way to work in any format other than DV. At first glance this appears to be a potentially crippling limitation, but Xpress DV is not designed to be an all-purpose editing system. It does one thing, and it does it well: it edits DV in native format. If you need to edit a different format, Avid would have you use one of their other systems; they want you to pick the tool designed specifically for a given format. In a production environment this approach has considerable merit, and it can result in a more functional and stable product. In fact, its tight integration with Avid’s product line is arguably Xpress DV’s biggest asset. DV project sequences edited at low resolution on a Media Composer can be imported into Xpress DV and recaptured from a DV camera via Firewire. This feature is particularly invaluable for DV filmmakers who want to squeeze every last bit of image quality out of their DV footage. Material recaptured in native DV suffers none of the subtle degradation that occurs when digitizing DV footage on a Media Composer that is not equipped for uncompressed video capture. Xpress DV also supports the OMFI file format and Audio Suite plug-ins, which is important for filmmakers who need to sweeten their audio tracks in Pro Tools. Tracks created in Xpress DV can be exported to ProTools with cuts, dissolves, fades and Audio Suite effects intact. Xpress DV will allow you to work with either NTSC or PAL material, and it gives you the choice of working in an aspect ratio of 4:3 or 16:9.

One complaint I have is that Xpress DV doesn’t offer a source and record monitor, the kind of configuration I’ve grown very fond of in the Media Composer. In Xpress DV, each source clip opens in an individual clip window, which can lead very quickly to screen clutter, especially because Xpress DV doesn’t currently support a dual monitor configuration.

Another concern is that, because you can only capture your material in the DV format, you cannot edit your project at a low resolution. For example, on my last big project I shot about 30 hours of source material. Native DV footage consumes a lot of drive space, and 30 hours of material would effectively require over 500 gigabytes of storage. On this particular project, working at full DV resolution would have been out of the question for me. Most filmmakers won’t face such extreme storage requirements, and hard drive prices are dropping constantly, but this is still an issue worth considering.

Is Xpress DV a better tool for indie filmmakers than Final Cut Pro? I think that depends on how you want to use your system.

Apple and Avid have taken fundamentally different approaches to designing their products. Apple’s Final Cut Pro (FCP) is attempting to be a kind of jack-of-all-trades software-based editing system. With FCP and a G4 or a fast G3 you can edit DV material with no additional hardware. Add a capture card, and you can edit material from an analog source such as BetaSP, or you can work with DV footage at low resolutions. There is also chatter from hardware manufactures about FCP-specific real-time DV boards, High Definition Video boards, multitrack audio boards and effects-accelerator boards, to name just a few of the products apparently in development.

In theory, open standards, such as the one Apple is trying to create, are desirable because they allow a system to work in a variety of production situations. But in an area as complex as computer video editing, the goal of getting these open standards to work smoothly has often proved elusive. And whether or not the products being designed for FCP will work well in arduous production environments is the subject of considerable speculation in the video and film communities.

One of the problems with the open-systems approach is that software and hardware usually originate at different companies. This proved disastrous for me, for example, on a project I recently edited on a system built around Adobe Premiere. Neither Adobe nor Pinnacle, the video board manufacturer, would take responsibility for several disastrous bugs in the system I was using. Each company blamed the other for the bugs, effectively leaving my project in limbo for several months while they tried to sort out the problems. In this light, Avid’s more proprietary approach (Avid prefers – not unreasonably, given its compatibility with the rest of its products – to call theirs an "integrated" approach) makes considerable sense.

The bottom line: Xpress DV is a beautifully designed, highly functional editing system for a very reasonable price. Xpress DV comes in different configurations, but a typical system consists of a 933-Mhz Pentium III CPU, a 9-gig SCSI system drive, a 36-gig SCSI media drive, a Canopus Firewire interface card and 128 megs of RAM. Xpress DV is also available in an IDE-only model. An express DV laptop system is in the offing.


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