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Mixed Media

Monsters of the vid

Article from The Mix, February 1995

Your passport to future worlds

As technology continues its exponential curve into cyberspace, keeping abreast of developments can be a nightmare. Rest easy as Mixed Media takes you by the hand and tiptoes through the tulip field of sound and vision that is Multimedia

Today's media-mad consumer is apt to let his imagination run away with him. No sooner does he get wind of some new technology, than he wants it in the shops, and probably for less than the price of a cup of tea. Indeed, the much hyped multi-media superhighway is little more than a half-constructed mud track, and anyone daring to take the slip road down to it will probably find themselves crawling along the hard shoulder for the most part of their journey.

But video is a medium that is ready to be exploited, and many hardware devices are already available for that purpose. Used in conjunction with existing graphics and audio/visual sequencing packages, it's possible to re-create an entire film or music video, using a computer. And it needn't cost the entire roads budget to achieve it, either.

Media Pro+ PC Video Card

As with most PC cards, the hardware requires a certain dexterity to install, perhaps more so than usual, as connections are also required to be made between the new card and the PC's existing VGA/SVGA (or extra graphics card if you have one installed) interface. The program takes no time at all to install, and consumes just 340K of hard disk space, which is good because a full-screen image uses more than 1Mbyte! The window displays the incoming video signal in real-time (and full colour), and the pair of speakers provided allows audio monitoring, so you can actually watch videos on your PC whilst simultaneously performing mundane tasks – like writing this article, for example.

Media Pro+ allows the capturing of any size (dependent upon the size of the actual video window), in high or true colour modes, although the latter option is only available if the Media Pro Hi-res board is fitted. One of its advantages is that it's unnecessary to pause the incoming video signal to grab a picture, thus reducing any video noise that might otherwise occur. Still, using a good VCR or camera, and a composite video cable, or better yet, S-VHS, can achieve even better results. The RF connection isn't used by Media Pro, simply because the quality isn't good enough for digitising.

Capturing several pictures in succession, in order to create a sort-of-animation is reasonably easy, so long as the VCR or camera being used is controllable enough. To do this. I paused the video cassette, grabbed a picture by pressing the S key (saved it, obviously), shuffled the video along a frame or two with the jog/shuttle wheel, and then grabbed another picture, ad infinitum.

All of the most important functions on Media Pro-r have keyboard shortcuts, which is very admirable. Pressing V opens the volume window (left and right cursors turn down and up the sound respectively), while the M button mutes the sound completely. The colours option, which is used to adjust the contrast, brightness, colour content (or saturation), and individual RGB contents is accessed by pushing the C key.

These functions are all for real-time images, and aren't applied to the finished picture. Pressing P accesses the processing menu, allowing the image being saved to disk to be edited. The balance, brightness, saturation, and contrast content of the picture can all be modified, but more interesting are functions like blur, emboss, negative and sharpen, which, used in moderation can greatly enhance pictures. Alternatively, you can apply ridiculous amounts of effects to pictures, and turn them into the digitised equivalent of Jackson Pollock.

Images are saved as Windows Bitmapped (BMP) format, Targa (TGA), or Tagged Image File Format (TIFF), and can then imported into an art or audio/visual sequencer package to edit some more, or merge with sound. Rombo have several pieces of software that can be used, including Multimedia Works/Media Recorder (featuring AVI Windows support).

Photostacker Plus, Image Q, and Photo Morph 2, that are all relatively inexpensive (from £49). Because of the export file format, you can also use anything you digitise with a number of other programs like Photoshop and Director.

Video STs

VidiST allows you to capture full-screen colour images on the Atari or Falcon. It takes into account the computer's specific graphic capabilities, like the STe's enhanced palette, and the Falcon's true colour and high resolutions, and then adjusts the maximum digitising area accordingly.

Although you can actually grab true colour images with an STe, you just can't view them afterwards. The cartridge features an RCA connector for composite video signals, and an S-VHS socket, plus two hardware-adjustable brightness and scan width controls, which you aren't likely to have to use unless you want to. The only down-side to the hardware is that, unless you have a cartridge extension port (like C-Lab's Logic cartridge), Vidi ST covers up the MIDI ports. This is only a minor shortcoming when you consider it for a moment, as you're unlikely to do any sequencing in the same screen resolutions you use for grabbing pictures.

From the main menu in GEM, the Grab menu can be accessed. This switches the screen resolution (for example, from ST medium res, to Low res), and for this reason might not work with screen expanders like Blow Up (although I haven't tried it), and the monSTer virtual screen program. Behind the grab panel, a full-screen monochrome picture constantly updates what is currently being fed into the cartridge by one or other of the video sockets. For the best quality pictures, the incoming signal must be still for at least a second after the grab button is pressed, to allow VidiST to process the image.

With more than one frame in RAM, the Carousel acts as a sort-of-animation facility, allowing you to replay the pictures in sequence. You cannot mix picture types however, and so if three Spectrum files (SPC) and two Degas (PI1) files are currently in RAM, you will have two 'animations' to switch between.

Before you save an image, it is often a good idea to tidy it up first, after all, you don't want the neighbours to start talking. All the same types of editing functions that are on Media Pro+ for the PC are duplicated on VidiST, as you would presume, and each time, if it goes wrong, there is still the option of undoing the damage you've inflicted on the picture. VidiST supports the following file formats: TIFF, IFF (2 to true colour), IMG, ART (art director), BMP, NEO (Neochrome), PI1, SPC and SPU.

Also available for the ST (and another separate version for the Falcon) is Video Master. Much like VidiST, it has the ability to digitise full-screen colour images, using a palette of 512 colours on the ST, and true colour with the Falcon version. In addition to this, Video Master also supports real-time 1/4 screen digitising of up to 300 frames(ish) on a 4Mbyte ST. Each of the frames can be saved as an individual picture file, or the whole lot, with a sampled soundtrack, as a FLM animation file. Samples of up to 16KHz can be taken using the Video Master cartridge, as it has connections for audio as well as video (both via RCA sockets), or loaded from disk, as long as they are in IFF, SPL, AVR or RAW formats. You can load in several samples at once too, joining them together in the editor to create a soundtrack.

Once all the necessary video grabbing has been done, and audio sampled, extra pictures can be imported, like text pages for titles, graphics from art packages and so on. These can then all be cobbled together into a coherent (or not, if you're Ken Russell) film.

Films on the Amiga

The equivalent cartridge to VidiST for the Amiga is the Vidi-RT version. The hardware itself plugs into the parallel port interface of the Amiga, and requires its own 9V power supply (which is provided). It features two composite video sockets (the RCA type), plus an S-VHS input, which are software selectable.

The software is very similar to VidiST, and grabbing a screen is done in much the same way, although instead of fullscreen monitoring, Vidi-RT uses a smaller realtime monochrome display to update the video signal. It is imperative to have either a static or paused picture in order to grab a screen, as it takes a few seconds to process the picture. Fortunately, the hardware works well enough to be able eliminate most of the interference caused by poor pauses on VCRs, so the picture doesn't suffer for it.

After all the excitement of grabbing a screen of video, the editing process is just too much to bear, with more tools than you can think of what to do with. Each function has a set of user-definable parameters, plus the all-important undo function, should it all go horribly wrong. The editing weapons are all the same as the PC and Atari versions, and competently attack any picture with reasonable speed, and a Carousel page is included for sequencing pictures too.

But by far the easiest way of creating a music video on the Amiga is to use the CD32 Video Creator software, although in order to do this, you need a double-speed CD-ROM drive. This is basically a picture and animation sequencer that combines audio CD and video effects, and quickly generate some startlingly good results. The whole thing works much like SCALA (the GenLock video titling software), with a sort of notepad layout, ready to be filled with whatever image or animation you choose from the vast library available.

Each part has a special effects icon which alters the way the picture or animation is merged into its surrounding parts. Effects like cuts, slides, peels, scrolls and fades, each of which can be made to work over a set period of time. Once you have a wodge of visuals, you can then synchronise them to the audio track to finish off. But even this can be tiresome for some people, especially those who stay up all night trying to meet impossible deadlines (it's tough at the top — Ed), and so Video Creator has an automatic film function called Random Waves. This simply generates a video from a random selection of sprites; the only thing you have to do is set the intensity, which is somewhere between ambient (calm and relaxed), to rave (chipmunks on Mescalin).

The CD-ROM has a wealthy library of static screens, two and three-dimensional sprites, and quad animations to choose from, so it is unlikely that you'll get bored too soon. There are also plans to release data CDs with more pictures and animations, although having an A1200 rather than a CD32 gives the added bonus of being able to add your own pictures to the library (IFF and GIF files are supported). Also, if you speak to the chaps at Almathera nicely, they'll tell you how to create your own animation files too.

It's a wrap

These are just some of the inexpensive routes to take to the multi-media marquee, and then on to potential oscar-winning revelry. There are millions more public domain utilities for editing together pictures, like Video Supreme for the ST, and just as many costly first-class tickets, like Director (for the Mac and PC), and SCALA on the Amiga. Whatever you choose, it's no good sitting around waiting for things to happen; if there's no interest, nothing will.

For more information on the VidiST/RT cartridges and the Media Pro series PC video cards, contact: Rombo, (Contact Details).
For more information on the Video Creator CD-ROM, contact: Almathera, (Contact Details)
For more information on the VideoMaster cartridge, contact: HiSoft, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Feb 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

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