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Shoot Integrate Review — Serious Magic DV Rack

There are lots of aspiring directors, but far fewer aspiring video engineers. DV cameras and editing software permit anyone with a good idea and lots of time to shoot a video project on a slim dime, but that dime rarely covers an engineer. The result has been lots of substandard video. While there are many choices for NLEs and cameras, there is no comprehensive software for video engineers. That’s changed with DV Rack, a product positioned to be the Final Cut Pro of engineering software.

DV Rack”s Digital Video Recorder allows you to record a DV signal to a laptop”s hard disk and places video in a clip list.

The idea is simple: create a virtual engineering cart in software. DV Rack runs on a PC, preferably a laptop that accompanies you on DV shoots. Just connect your camera to the PC via FireWire and examine the audio and video signals.

If nothing else, DV Rack makes DV shooters think about system calibration, signal quality, and continuity. These are the three demons that talented shooters encounter in post, and they require many hours, if not days, of cleanup. This is time that should be spent on the creative process. If you learn to use DV Rack, you can regain those hours.

DV Rack, unfortunately, is PC-only. It follows the fashionable interface trend of depicting actual test gear built into a rack. Included with the software are two durable test cards for monitor calibration.

The field manual walks you through the setup of the system with the Sure Shot module, which is where the test cards come in. Working with the DP you frame the shot, focus the camera on the test pattern, adjust the exposure in the camera, and set the white balance. There is a similar setup for color bars to calibrate the monitor of your PC. At this point you are ready to record, and DV Rack’s nine components are ready for action.

Working with DV Rack”s Sure Shot module and test cards, shooters can calibrate their cameras and PC monitors.

Nine rack units

The Field Monitor is pretty much what you would find in a Sony PVM-series monitor, only now it’s in your laptop. Because it reads the feed from the camera after compression, you see what will actually be on the tape. You can freeze and zoom frames and use the two zebra-bar functions, one for overall brightness and the second for skin tones.

The Vectorscope and Waveform Monitor are standard, essential tools and similar to what you find in many NLEs. The Waveform represents brightness, luminance, and saturation levels, and the Vectorscope represents color amplitude and the phase relationship of red, green, and blue values.

DV Rack’s Digital Video Recorder allows you to record your DV signal to the hard disk. This is a great feature all by itself and far superior to tape. There are a few format options, but basically they are AVI and QuickTime, using common native DV codecs. Canopus, Matrox, Pinnacle, and others are supported. Once recorded, video is placed in a clip list. This is useful because you can easily navigate through the clips to compare them, much as you would in an NLE. This is important to maintaining shot-to-shot consistency as you move the camera, microphones, and lights, and as the time of day changes. You even can add notes to clips.

No aspect of the DV revolution has received less attention than audio quality. The main function of DV Rack’s Audio Spectrum Analyzer is for setting levels for mixing and also for determining mic placement. This is a 32-band unit (16 bands per channel), and because it takes a direct feed from FireWire after compression, it avoids the impedance issues of DV cameras with mini plugs. As it turns out, reading a multiband meter is something of an art and more open to interpretation than reading scopes. I suspect that a DV Rack training DVD will come soon.

While the Waveform Monitor and Vectorscope take full-screen measurements, the Spectra 60 component allows you to evaluate pixel samples on the monitor. Available color spaces are RGB, YUV, HSC, HSL, and CMYK.

The DV Grabber captures still frames as .jpg, .bmp, or .png files.

The DV Quality Monitor and Clip Alerts set limits for the audio and video signals. Video quality alerts appear as yellow bars, and audio clipping, such as low audio, is flagged by red bars. Audio pops show up as red boxes over the waveform. As a producer I have had several occasions when audio problems like these slipped by, and while I can’t say that DV Rack would have eliminated all the human error, it certainly would have made some problems more obvious.

The DV Rack’s Shot Clock is a timecode-based clock that is user-configured for drop-frame or non-drop-frame PAL or NTSC. The timer begins when the record button is hit, but you can override this and let the script supervisor begin it manually.

Knowing what you don’t know

Okay, all this stuff sounds great, but it’s clearly aimed at non-professional engineers — not because DV Rack is less than professional, but because many DV shoots can’t afford an engineer. DV Rack comes with a field guide, a PDF manual that expands on the field guide, and online help. So now we are in a do-it-yourself situation. DV shooters are resourceful and hugely ambitious, but engineering is a very precise craft.

You probably won’t be connected to the Internet if you’re on location. So that leaves the field guide and the PDF manual. Engineers go to school to learn their craft and then gain lots of life experience in the trenches. Sets are not the best place to learn about scopes and audio signals, so while DV Rack provides the tools, there’s an experience gap between installing the software and using it without holding up the director. Anyone who buys DV Rack should go through the field guide several times so the process is rote.

DV made cameras mobile, and in available light situations their greatest virtue is speed. With a few flags and bounce cards any project — up to and including narrative filmmaking — becomes an actor’s medium, not a crew’s medium. But this run-and-gun attitude will also cause DV Rack to get a bad rap from some who think that it should be simple and quick to get quality video on tape, then are disappointed by the amount of time that engineering requires, particularly when they’re tethered to a laptop.

The main issue at play is how quickly the acting engineer can solve problems identified by DV Rack software. If you use it on set only to calibrate the monitor and the camera with the Sure Shot module, which is just a small part of what the software does, that’s a big step in the right direction. On a shot-by-shot basis, DV Rack will seem intrusive to some directors. The engineer needs to be politic, fast, and nearly invisible. None of this is the fault of the software, and the emergence of this product is great news. Still, it’s important to set perceptions straight.

When I first saw Serious Magic’s Ultra Key, the company’s greenscreen and virtual-set software for the masses, I had to laugh: it really worked. DV Rack is startling in the same way — innovation is like that. NAB this year was filled with duplicate products in every category, so I have to admire a company that creates a new category even if it’s inspired by an analog idiom. If you are a guerilla filmmaker, give DV Rack a try. If you are doing corporate video, it’s a must. It’s worth every penny. Now where’s the Mac version?

BOTTOM LINE

Company: Serious Magic Folsom, Calif.; (916) 985-8000
www.seriousmagic.com

Product: DV Rack

Assets: Field monitor in laptop; DVR allows recording of DV signal to hard disk; software alerts shooters to system calibration and signal quality.

Caveats: PC-only.

Demographic: Non-engineers who want to avoid cleanup time in post.

Price: $495

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