Book Review: Digital Video Hacks

Here’s a book review I wrote several months ago and only now got around to posting:

Digital Video Hacks: Tips and Tools for Shooting, Editing and Sharing
Joshua Paul et al.
432 pages
O’Reilly; 1 edition (May 27, 2005) $29.95 US
PDF Samples

Digital Video Pocket Guide
Derrick Story,
Oreilly, 2003,
128 pages
0596005237 $14.95 US
PDF Samples

Does anyone know when Oreilly stopped putting animals on its book covers? And started adding (gasp!) illustrations to their technology books? Camels and monkeys and birds still adorn the programming books, but a lot of recent Oreilly books have targeted user applications (i.e., The Missing Manual series) and a more graphically-oriented approach (some might say a comic book approach) to highly technical subjects (see the Headfirst Series or their recent Make magazine). The newly released Digital Video Hacks offers a more user-friendly approach, providing lots of tips and ideas to how to produce a video project.

This book (like other Hacks books) lists 100 hacks and how to do them. It includes contributions from about a dozen writers, most notably filmmaker Michael Dean (who directed the film DIY or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist ) and Derrick Story who wrote the terrific Digital Video Pocket Guide (which I’ll speak more about later).

Unlike Digital Video Pocket Guide (which focuses more on the shooting part of the production process), Digital Video Hacks walks you through production, post-production and even a little bit of distribution. First, here’s a list of things you won’t find covered in this book(not in enough depth to be useful). You won’t find much discussion about HD production (a good source is the HD For Indies weblog); you won’t find much advice about buying equipment or how to comparison shop ( might provide better information about that). You won’t find a handbook of non-linear editors (NLE) or even a comparison of those currently on the market. Interestingly, the NLE screenshots come from various applications, and in fact they even mention Linux and open-source options on occasion (it doesn’t mention Kino, though it goes over a neat open source encoding tool called ffmpeg ). Acknowledging that people will be using different NLEs, the book talks about NLE tricks in a generic way. Aside from postproduction, this book doesn’t cover managing a video project (getting clearance, making budgets, etc), or the aesthetics of videography. You’ll have to check other books for that (see below).

That aside, the book is great. For basic videography, the book talks about things you can improvise: using roller skates or baby carriages for dolly shots, windshield shades for bounceboards, parchment paper or pantyhose for light diffusion. I also learned a lot of great tricks: how to mount your camera on your car (PDF), log your footage and fix timecode/digital transfer problems (PDF) . The book covers lots of gotchas: Why you should edit with both a TV monitor and computer monitor, cleaning audio (with high-pass or low-pass filters or applications like Soundsoap ). All great stuff. The portion on lighting was ok; unlike many video production books (which go into excruciating detail about lighting equipment way above an individual’s budget), the book describes an on-the-go lightkit assembled by a director for shooting in Thailand. This was cool and interesting, but I definitely could have used more buying information about something above no-budget lighting. I would have liked a discussion of common lighting scenarios. (I guess this is just something you have to learn on your own). Aside from a discussion of monopods, I’m surprised that the book didn’t weigh in on do-it-yourself steadicams. I really wanted an extended discussion of that (luckily, there seems to be a a
slashdot discussion on the topic).

I had the same complaint about the audio section. While it contained some interesting sound tricks (regarding the soundproof car interior as a mobile studio for example) I missed information about the different types of microphones and how to place them correctly. Such basic stuff isn’t properly considered a hack and thus not included here. That is unfortunate. To be fair though, the audio hacks given here were excellent. To wit, hack #57 (Fool Your Audience’s Perception (PDF)) describes in detail how to use the McGurk effect to cover mistakes and yes, even to edit out profanity without your audience catching on.

For readers looking for more information about the shooting process itself, the cheaper and more succinct 2003 Digital Video Pocket Guide by Derrick Story covers that information superbly. Story’s book goes into more detail about equipment to buy as well as how to resolve lighting and sound problems. There’s only so much you can say in 112 pages, but 30 of those pages are devoted to solving practical shooting problems (i.e., the walking interview, dealing with wind (PDF), etc.)
Another 30 pages consists of reference material and tables about basic camera concepts (i.e., how aperture relates to depth of field). Also, this book in particular has a high percentage of color photographs, which (like those in Digital Video Hacks) make it easier to understand what the writer is getting at. Some of the information from Digital Video Pocket Guide is duplicated in Digital Video Hacks, but lately I’ve found myself referring more often to the Pocket Guide than the Video Hacks book.

In contrast, Digital Video Hacks spends a lot more time on post-production, resolving sound problems and image discrepencies. It also contains lots of tricks (special techniques for appropriate certain contexts). Some examples: time-lapse video of a sunset, constructing a DIY blue screen shot (really cool and not as complicated as I thought), controlling your camera remotely, making your own “weather report,” creating a “freeze-time” sequence (a la Matrix), creating a video for 3-D viewing, making DVD menus, defeating the Macromedia protections on commercial DVDs to import clips into your project, shooting a computer monitor (the discrepencies in refresh rates causes flickering) and rotating your video from vertical to horizontal. The book also contains some postproduction tricks (such as changing a scene from day to night) as well as other advanced techniques: Removing an unwanted object (like a microphone) from your video image using your NLE or using XML config files to create custom effects and transitions in MS Movie Maker.

The book did a fairly good job talking about distribution, encoding and rendering. There was a good discussion about setting up bit torrent, videoblogging, live feeds, video catalogs, creating DVD menus and encoding for media players on portable devices (using 3GPP file formats). This is important and amazing stuff, especially as video aggregators like FireAnt become more popular. In addition, some hacks were less about video production than using remote cameras for everyday uses (security, remote tech support). Interesting for some, not terribly important to future Richard Linklaters.

The best part about both books are the great color images. Both are easy to read and browse through. I like the way that Digital Video Hacks offered suggestions for Linux, Windows and Apple and didn’t limit themselves to talking about only one application like Final Cut Pro. Sometimes a a technology book, if its approach to the subject is too generic, will turn out not to offer a practical series of steps for accomplishing tasks. Digital Video Hacks did not fall into this trap.

In summary: Digital Video Hacks is an excellent all-in-one book for video producers at all levels. Great practical suggestions and tricks, although I wish it provided more help for evaluating your equipment needs (and making it fit within your budget).

Robert Nagle , aka idiotprogrammer writes web fiction under various pseudonyms. He is soon embarking on first feature documentary project.

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Other Book Recommendations:

Books: Lighting for Digital Video & Television, Second Edition
by John Jackman

Producing Great Sound for Digital Video [Paperback] by Jay Rose

On Film Editing by Edward Dmytryk (written 20 years ago, but succinct and still relevant)

Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger (good on aesthetics, camera technique & project management).

Extreme Dv at Used-Car Prices: How to Write, Direct, Shoot, Edit, and Produce a Digital Video Feature for Less Than $3000, Ray Carney (Foreword), Rick Schmidt (good at running a project, legal, budgets)

No Budget Movie (FREE PDF book)

The Eye is Quicker : Film Editing: Making A Good Film Better
by Richard D. Pepperman 2004

Forums: dvxuser, , dvinfo , and

Free Tutorials: Sonnyboo Articles,
Indie Film Tech Videos by Scott Spears (free for download),
Cybercollege course on Audio/TV production (with quizzes, exercises, etc).

(posted originally on DVI Forum).



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