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Digital filmmaking made more simple


If you want to take a video you've shot with a standard analog camcorder and get it into your PC or post it online, you have a couple of choices.

You can open your PC, install a video converter card and configure the software to make it run, which takes about the same amount of time as shooting a feature-length movie.

Or you can try a couple of recently released products from Pinnacle Systems (http://www.pinnaclesys.com /start.asp) that are easy enough for kids to use to create a super-short bathtub version of "Titanic" without the anger and frustration that accompany some PC movie-making adventures.

Studio Action is aimed at helping 8- to 16-year-olds make movies on the PC, while Studio Online allows users to edit and upload digital movies to the Internet for friends and family to view. Each costs $70 and relies on your Universal Serial Bus port to capture video instead of using an internal adapter card.

Pinnacle recommends a 233 MHz Pentium computer running Windows 98 or a later edition for both programs. Your PC will need 64 megabytes of RAM and a mid-level graphics adapter card and sound card with DirectX 6.0 drivers.

A bright yellow cable that comes in both boxes has a USB connector at one end and a head for three RCA cables at the other. The cable takes the information fed through the audio and video jacks of your camcorder or VCR, converts it to a digital signal and transfers it to your computer.

Although other video-to-USB devices have bulky desktop modules that convert the analog signal into a digital one, Pinnacle has miniaturized the circuitry to fit into the head of the cable. The electronics compress the signal for transfer through the USB port.

Produced by Pinnacle Systems and LEGO Studios (the movie offshoot of the toy company), Studio Action offers a kid-centric manual and onscreen interface with simple icons that are far more descriptive than those of many adult programs. A "director" character explains how to install and run the software. And LEGO has included a souvenir LEGO cameraman toy.(If you don't have a camcorder, the same software is packaged with the LEGO & Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set for $180, which includes a small LEGO digital movie camera and hundreds of LEGO pieces your child can use to build cars, buildings and dinosaurs for a miniature movie set.)

The director explains how to transfer video from your camera to the computer, how to perform nonlinear editing tasks - taking scenes from a videotape and moving them around in your movie - and how to lay in sound and music. A small library of music clips is included, along with instructions for stretching a song to fill a movie or using parts of a tune for shorter scenes.

Studio Action's instructions have a distinctly educational edge, with simple explanations of technical terms such as "scrubber" (a tool for coordinating elements of a movie while editing).

A "Make Movie" button allows your child to attach a movie to an e-mail message - although there's a stern warning for youngsters to ask permission before sending a file larger than 4 MB, which can choke e-mail servers.

Studio Online offers the same basic features with a more austere, grownup interface and slightly less exposition about the movie-making process. Its snazziest trick comes when you choose the "Share My Video" function, which uploads your movie to a free 10 MB storage area at www.studioonline.com (you have to sign up first). You may then e-mail and provide access to those who want to see your film.

The Web site will set up a low-bandwidth download for your friends with a 56K-modem connection and a high-bandwidth download for DSL and cable-modem subscribers. Sniffer technology at the Web site will determine the type of connection your viewer has.

Although Pinnacle makes production as easy as possible, don't expect broadcast television quality. The USB port's limited data-transfer rate of 1.5 megabits per second isn't quick enough to produce high-resolution video, so you're generally limited to an image of 320 pixels by 240 pixels, or about one-sixth the size of the average computer screen. Try to play the video in full-screen mode or pipe it to your TV, and you'll be disappointed.

More importantly, digital video has a voracious appetite for hard disk space. High-resolution movies can quickly fill up your drive, and they're much too large to transmit across the Internet.

But most of us don't need high-quality video, just something good enough to display faces clearly (or capture the first drool of a newborn grandchild).

If you're serious about video, you'll probably want to buy a digital camcorder for the clarity of its signal. To transfer the video to a PC at high speed, you'll need to install an adapter card compatible with the IEEE 1394 standard (also known as i.Link or Firewire).

These connections are standard on new Macs. For the PC market, Pinnacle Systems bundles a slick editing program and Firewire card for $100 as the Studio DV system.

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