Digital Workstations – The Specs
A digital workstation is nothing more than a normal computer equipped with a few tools that allow it to handle multimedia production. In order to turn your computer into a workstation for digital filmmaking, you need to supply it with (or make sure it already has) two things: a way to get video footage from your camera onto your computer, and a way to manipulate the footage once it’s there. I’ll also go over some of the technical details that will make an editing workstation worth its salt in terms of speed and storage space.
With a camera that records video onto a tape or other linear medium, you will need to spend the time capturing your footage. Hard disk cameras sometimes give you the option of simply transferring full video files from the camera to the computer, but either way you will need to come up with the best way to do this.
Almost all computers that have been produced over the last several years have built-in USB ports, and digital cameras usually have USB jacks on their interfaces. But the USB standard uses shared bandwidth – meaning its total speed must be divided among every device that’s being used. On a dedicated machine with no other USB devices, this makes no difference to you, but if you’ve got a printer, a bluetooth receiver, a mouse, and a webcam all connected through USB, be aware that your video transfer rates are going to be affected by these other devices and the post-production stage of your digital filmmaking effort may suffer as a result.
A better option for video transfer is Firewire, which does not share bandwidth between multiple connected devices that use the same protocol. HDMI is becoming more prevalent with HD camcorders, but while this is a true digital standard, the requisite equipment is still relatively cost-prohibitive.
Many cameras also have A/V component output and S-Video output, but by far the cheapest and most high-quality standard is currently firewire. Making your computer compatible with firewire is often as simple as purchasing an inexpensive firewire card (around $20) that fits into one of your computer’s PCI slots.
Digital Filmmaking – Video Production
The second part of this equation is giving your computer the right software it needs to handle the capturing and editing of video. Lots of people ask me what the best editing software for digital filmmaking is, but while Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere are generally considered the most robust programs at the prosumer level, you can achieve great results using other less expensive packages like Sony Vegas or Pinnacle Studio.
The only software programs I’ve used that are so basic I wouldn’t recommend them to even the beginning user would be Windows Movie Maker and iMovie. Sure, if they’re all you’ve got for the time being, go ahead and play around with them. But they don’t give you nearly the degree of control and flexibility you’ll probably crave once you start cranking up your video projects.
Hard Drives and Storage
Video takes up an absolute ton of space, especially video of decent quality. You can produce videos for YouTube&tm; by capturing them at 320×240 (half normal resolution) and still come out with decent stuff for the web, but with Flash and streaming HD video coming into the forefront, you don’t want to limit yourself before you even start.
If you can get a separate hard drive on your workstation – or at least partitioned space on one hard drive – just for video storage, your machine’s performance and your ability to organize your captured footage should improve greatly. Playing video from a hard drive that is already taking care of running an operating system and the other programs you’re using is like asking for dropped frames and slow refresh rates.
As a rough guideline, a 250GB hard drive should be able to store almost 17 hours of uncompressed, standard resolution AVI video. Working with an 80GB drive, that number is reduced to a little over 5 hours.
Your hard drive’s RPM speed affects how quickly it can access your video files, so generally the higher this number is the better. When dealing with large files like videos, a 5,400 drive may be passable, but you won’t get the same reliable results as you would with a 7,200 or faster drive.
Processor and Memory
Your computer’s processor and bus speeds are definitely important, but you can get away with a slower processor as long as you have lots of RAM. In fact, RAM does more to allow a computer to operate quickly than its processor speed in most cases. I remember going into a LAN gaming house one time to play games with some friends. The games were running really well in 3d, first-person style, so I was curious and checked out the specs of the machine I was on. While the processor was nothing amazing at the time, I found that the machines were loaded with as much RAM as they could take! They had traded processor speed for RAM capability.
It goes without saying that you should get a comfortable chair and use proper ergonomics when working with your keyboard and mouse so you don’t end up with carpal tunnel after the countless hours of video editing you’re sure to be doing. But also, having two or three monitors to work with is a huge help when you’re working in multimedia production. Your time and effort level are only reduced by having a greater viewable area to work with.
Even if you can’t afford more than one monitor or a video card that supports them, you can still work with just one. But again, make sure that your ergonomics are right – posture, distance from the screen, angle of your wrists, and height of your chair. These might seem like small things, but over time they can cause or deter soreness and aches caused by your hypnotic editing trance.
Hopefully these tips will help you put together a workstation that meets your budget and lets you get your digital filmmaking production finished as comfortably and effortlessly as possible. If you have any additional tips or suggestions, just drop me a line by visiting our contact page.
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