How Do We Make These Movies?

This page was last updated on December 4th, 2003

Since I had no previous experience with digital video production, I had to go through a substantial amount of learning before I had a clue what was needed to do this sort of thing.  So, for those of you that may be interested in making your own videos, here's what I do.  Remember, this is my setup, and there are numerous other ways to get the same thing accomplished, but this may help get you started a bit quicker.  Follow the links for important supplemental information.

Our Digital Video Cameras

We have 4 cameras that we use to record our video footage, a JVC GR-DVF21 digital camcorder, a JVC GR-DVF31 digital camcorder, and a Canon ZR45 digital camcorder that we've recently purchased for head-cam video footage (see below) in conjunction with our Sportzshot PVS-CAM480 Hi-Resolution Helmet Camera.  The first three are mini-DV (Digital Video) camcorders that use very small tapes, somewhat smaller than an 8 mm video tape, but bigger than a microcassette tape.  The retail price of each of these camcorders was ~$1,000.00, but you actually purchase them for less than half that if you shop around (as we did). These camcorders are all small handheld units that contain 1 CCD (charge-coupled device) chip, the electronic chip that captures the image. Cameras in the next price range (~$2,000.00 and up) contain 3 CCD chips, one for each color (red, green and blue) and are supposed to produce a slightly better picture. However, these cameras are generally larger than something that will fit in a fanny pack, and aren't the kind of equipment you want to have on you while skiing with reckless abandon.

We have two model 601 camera bags from Tamrac which have a nice layer of padding for outdoor / skiing use. Inside the camera bags, the cameras are also surrounded by another layer of padding which provides additional protection, and helps to keep snow off them when the bag is open. I also sometimes use a vest harness and waist belt from Lowepro, depending on the type of skiing we're doing and what the weather is like.  This combination allow easy carrying of the camcorder while you are skiing, but depending on what type of jacket you're wearing, you can often fit the camera right into a large pocket. Most often, we use fanny packs (Mountainsmith Day Packs) to carry the camcorders, and are essentially able to ski with little concern about damaging them. We've taken them through some pretty hairy terrain, and some great crashes, and they've come through unscathed. That's not to say that we'll put them through anything. If a shot is planned with a large air, or other technical features, we will usually pass the camera off to someone else to be safe. The cameras have also been through some VERY heavy snowfall (1-2 inches/hour) and cold (sub-zero) temperatures and they've worked fine. Very cold temperatures do shorten battery life, but we have backup batteries for each of the cameras which are used for cold/extended trips. We got great deals on the extra batteries by winning auctions through Import Batteries on Ebay.

We've also purchased filters (40.5 mm is the required size for our JVC models, and 30.5 mm is the required size for our Canon) for our cameras.  Although the cameras don't come with their own filters, it appears that a general UV-blocking filter is a good idea to have on the camera to protect the lens from scratches etc.  A UV filter doesn't really change your picture at all, it simply blocks some (or all) of the UV light, and it can remove a bit of haze that is due to strong UV rays.  We purchased a couple of standard UV-blocking filters made by Tiffen.  Shooting quality video on snow can be very difficult because of the high contrast between the bright white snow surface and other objects. In very bright conditions on snow, we've noticed that our cameras cannot resolve the contrast of areas on the snow, and the snow ends up taking on a "radioactive" appearance in which the snow just looks like a glowing, white blob.  Adjusting the camera settings to lower the amount of light coming in can help alleviate this, but under really bright conditions (bright spring days), even fully tweaking the camera settings doesn't seem to help.  This is obviously not great for getting quality video of skiing on bright sunny days.  For an example of what this looks like, click here.  To solve this problem, we've bough neutral density filters, which simply block some of the light going into the camera.  We bought 0.3 step neutral density filters from Tiffen, which basically block half the incoming light.  These filters help enormously, and we now have little difficulty shooting in very bright light. Interestingly, our Canon seems to tolerate much higher levels of light than our JVCs before the picture gets washed out. This may be due to the fact that the shutter speed on the Canon can be adjusted all the way down to 1/8000th of a second, while the JVCs can only go down to 1/500th of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the shorter the amount of time the camera takes to capture light, so even if you are incredibly bright conditions, you won't be overexposed. The UV blocking filter that we bought for our Canon came with a 0.6 step neutral density filter (blocks about 3/4 of the light) but I doubt we'll ever need that much blocking power, especially on the Canon. Some of the more expensive digital video cameras ($2000-$3000) come with their own internal neutral density filters to take care of these sorts of exposure problems.

All our camcorders (although not the head cam) have digital image stabilization, which essentially stabilizes your picture so that there is no jitter from your hand. I highly recommend this feature if you are looking for a video camera. In general, the more zoom you use, the more this feature will help. My vague understanding is that digital images stabilization works by "repeating an image" if the camera thinks the movement is just jitter. Unfortunately, this process can lower the resolution of your image a bit due to the way it corrects for changes, so make sure you get a camcorder that allows you to turn this feature off. For many instances, like using a tripod, you WILL want to turn it off for the best picture. Sometimes, we actually do use a tripod for certain ski shots, but more commonly for interviews and other special shots. The model of triopod we have is a U 6600 from Slik. It's fairly light (1.1 kg), which is important if you want to carry it around for skiing, but it extends to over 56" in height for plenty of flexibility in shots. One of the greatest features is the "quick shoe" which is an adapter that let's you whip the camera on and off the tripod in a split second. This saves fiddling around with the camera mount screw every time you want to take the camera on and off the tripod.

As mentioned above, we've purchased our 3rd video camera this year, a Canon ZR45 digital camcorder, which will be used for shooting head-cam video footage (although it can be used as a standard camcorder as well). This camcorder was chosen because it has analog inputs (inputs for receiving analog audio and video signals and converting them to digital). For capturing 1st person head cam footage, the camcorder is connected to a Sportzshot PVS-5PRO Hi-Resolution Helmet Camera which provides some excellent 1st-person shots (480 lines of resolution). There are some subtle things to watch out for with regard to the angle that you orient the helmet camera. If it is angled too low, the picture lacks a horizon and viewers tend to want crane their necks up as they search for one. If it is too high, some of the effect of the shot is lost because there is no foreground for perspective. The standard lens that comes with the Sportzshot camera is 3.6 mm and provides a 72 degree field of view. This is the lens that Sportzshot recommends for general 1st-person footage. This lens has worked great for footage that I have shot by myself, however, due to the fish eye style lens which gives nice field of vision, objects quickly get very small as they travel away from you. This was therefore not very effective for follosing a skier and keeping them large in the picture. Therefore, I purchased another lens for use in these situations (8 mm, 36 degree field of view) which should work better. For some examples of footage shot with the 3.6 mm lens, take a look at videos from December 27th, 2002, and December 28th, 2002 at Lost Trail Powder Mountain in Montana. We've also got lots of head cam footage in some of our newest web videos, check them all out at our web movie page. I've got an additional page that explains some the details of how I went about setting up and acquiring my headcam. If you are interested in shooting your own headcam footage of skiing, you may want to check it out by clicking below.

Click here for more of Jay's headcam Info

Once the video is shot, it needs to be transferred to the computer for editing.  Digital video takes an enormous amount of memory.  Just 30 minutes of DV footage will take up 6 Gigabytes of memory.  That's a huge chunk on most people's hard drives. We now have 4 hard drives on our computer, in sizes of 40 Gigabytes, 60 Gigabytes, 80 Gigabytes, and 100 Gigabytes. Although this seems like a lot of hard drive space, you'd be amazed how quickly the drives can fill up. Depending on the type of hard drive you have, you may not even be able to use all the space on the drive and still keep it running efficiently enough to tranfer digital video (as hard drives get filled up and fragmented, data access is slower)  Because of the large amount of data involved in digital video, and the speed at which it must be transferred onto your computer (something like 36 Megabyte per second - but I'm still researching this number), a special connection is required to save the DV information onto your hard drive.  This connection is known as a "Firewire", or IEEE-1394 connection.  The firewire connection can handle transfer rates of over 400 Megabit/sec (approximately 50 Megabyte/sec) so it is well-suited to digital video transfer.  Almost all digital camcorders have Firewire connections, which will generally allow both output of video from the camcorder to the computer, and input of processed video from the computer back to the camcorder.

The Firewire cable is connected to a Firewire card which is installed in your computer (many computers now come with them built-in).  This card has the necessary input for the cable, and with the appropriate software, allows you to capture digital video onto your hard drive.  I originally purchased the MotoDV package from the company known as Digital Origin, now apparently part of the company know as Discreet.  MotoDV included Digital Origin's Firewire card, a Firewire cable, as well as capture software.  When we purchased our new computer (see below), we bought it with its own Firewire card, and although I initially installed the Digital Origin card in the computer as well, the new card appears to work well, so the Digital Origin card was removed. The Digital Origin capture software allowed you to operate the controls of your camcorder right from the computer screen, and let you watch the video on the computer while you are capturing it onto your hard drive.  Now, we accomplish all of our digital video capturing and editing in one program, Adobe Premiere, which will be discussed below. In order to capture the digital video information from your camcorder correctly without dropping frames, you need to make sure your computer system is up to snuff (i.e. fast enough & compatible).  Most modern computer systems are quite capable of capturing digital video, but check what is recommended for whatever software you purchase.  You don't want to end up with a card and software that's not going to work with your computer and video camera.  For our video editing setup, we also have a 20-inch Sony TV (monitor) hooked up to the camcorder to watch as we are capturing video.  You can watch the capturing process off of your camcorder, or the computer screen, but if you have a lot of capturing to do, a monitor makes things much easier and let's you get a better sense of what the material will really look like on a TV screen.

Digital Video has incredibly high quality sound; as good, or even better than CDs.  For our purposes (action ski video), we want high quality sound when we make our final production.  I use Adaptec's Easy CD Creator , or Pioneer/Veritas RecordNow DX to capture songs from CDs into high quality .wav files on the computer.  Easy CD creator or some other audio software (at least the basic version) comes with many recordable CD ROM drives anyway.  The full CD quality is retained in whatever songs are captured since everything is digital.  Alternatively you can find just about any song you'd ever want on the internet if you know where to look (MP3 & .wav files etc.), and they can be of great quality as well.  We also accompany our movies with soundtracks on CD, so Easy CD Creator works well for generating our own CDs too. On the previous computer system I was using, I hooked up a pair of Sony bookshelf speakers (the ones that came with the computer were fine, but I had these better ones lying around so I hooked them up).  Although hi-fi sound is not necessary, it's nice to be able to hear what things will sound like while you are working on the project, to allow you to adjust audio levels etc. Our new computer system came with an amazing Altec Lansing ADA885 5-speaker setup that produces incredibly high-quality theatre sound (the speaker system is THX certified). This allows us to get an idea of how the movie will sound on home theatre systems (which is really the way to go when watching ski movies if you have the option).

Previously, I was using a Pentium III 450 MHz computer running Windows 98 for capturing and editing my audio and video.  Since the computer had only a 13 Gigabyte hard drive with a few Gigabytes already taken up from the operating system and other files, we had to be very picky about what we captured.  Rather quickly, (remember, just one minute of digital video is approximately 200 Megabytes or so, see below for exact values) we began to fill up this hard drive with digital video clips and were running out of space.  As soon as we could, we purchased a second hard drive to remove the worry about space.  We purchased a 40 Gigabyte 7200 RPM hard drive from Maxtor.  This drive was installed as a primary "slave" drive (leaving the 13 GB drive as the master, or main drive with the operating system).  This new 40 Gigabyte drive functioned solely to capture and process our video, leaving space on the smaller hard drive for programs etc.  I've heard that it is recommended to get a second hard drive exclusively for working with your digital video if possible (as we've done). Now, as mentioned above, we have three hard drives in our new system (a 60 GB hard drive that came with our computer and a 100 GB Firewire hard drive from Western Digital for DV file storage), but we still used the 40 GB drive for transferring video back and forth between the camcorder and computer, and we leave it as empty as possible (storing files on the other drives) to let it run as efficiently as it can.

Exact values for how much space digital video occupies - obtained from DV gear Video Editing FAQ

The basic formula is resolution times bit depth times frame rate per second. DV resolution is 720x480 and bit depth is 3, so the formula becomes 720x480x3x29.7 frames per second =

30.8Mb per second (megabits/sec) of DV video
3.5MB per second (megabytes/sec) of DV video
210MB per minute of DV video
12.6GB per hour of DV video

Our current system is a Dell Dimension 8100 Series with a 1.8 GHz Pentium 4 Processor. When it comes to digital video, my opinion (derived from a LOT of personal experience) is to get the most powerful computer you can, and at the time we purchased our new computer, 1.8 GHz was the fastest available. We've installed 768 MB of PC800 RDRAM (lots of RAM really helps, and RDRAM is supposedly optimized for high-end multimedia tasks involving video and audio). We're running two monitors off the computer, which gives us added space to work with the digital video (as well as other programs). The main monitor is a 21-inch P1110 Trinitron flat display, and the secondary monitor is a 15-inch Viewsonic 15GA. Windows makes it very easy to set up both monitors, and they work together as one seamless desktop area which really helps productivity. The main graphics card on the 21-inch monitor is a 64MB DDR NVIDIA GeForce3 4X AGP. It lets us run really large video screens on the monitor, and it just eats it up. I've had experience before being limited with the size of the video on the computer screen and decided to go with a powerful graphics card to avoid any hassles (it's also great for computer games ;). We have previously run Windows Millenium Edition (Windows ME) for an opertaing system (basically because that is what came with my computer). Although I was initially worried about its performance for digital video editing (Windows 2000 and Windows XP are supposedly more powerful) I was generally very pleased. Windows ME was rock solid for me for general computer use, and it was also quite stable for video editing. We've now had to upgrade to Windows XP, not because Windows ME was giving us trouble, but because of a specific DVD-related issue. When you use your authoring program to make a DVD, it creates a file (called a DVD image file). This file essentially IS your DVD. These files can be quite large (larger that 4 Gigabytes) and this is what caused our problem. Older version of Windows, such as Windows 98, ME etc. organize their files using a file system called FAT32. Unfortunately, this system does not support files larger than 4 GB, and once my DVD project grew to that size, I could no longer save it (The Impression program nicely let me know that this was the problem. Newer verstions of Windows, like Windows 2000 and XP, can use another file system called NTFS. This system DOES support files larger than 4 GB (it can actually support files up into the Terabyte range). So, I bought the upgrade to Windows XP, which was actually fairly inexpensive since I already had windows ME. The upgrade went very smoothly, and even fixed a few issues that were annoying me. I then converted my hard drives to NTFS (this process was also very easy and I didn't even have to take the files of the hard drives). Now, I can use huge files with no problems, and the NTFS file system is really smooth. It handles all my large video files with ease. I will say that I am EXTREMELY happy with Windows XP. If you are having problems with your video editing system, I recently found out about a web page called that contains all sorts of great information about working with digital video. They had the most extensive list of optimizations and suggestions for digital video editing that I've ever seen; a great place to go if you are having trouble with your editing system, or just want to make it work even better.

Once the desired audio and video and clips are captured onto your computer, you need to edit them (cutting, splicing, etc.) to make your movie (or commercial, or trailer, or whatever).  The MotoDV package that I purchased came with two different editing programs, one from Digital Origin themselves called EditDV unplugged, and also Premiere LE from Adobe.  Adobe Premiere is a well known video editing program, powerful enough for professionals, and was what I had planned to use for my video editing.  Even though the MotoDV package only came with the LE, or "Limited Edition" version of Premiere, it allowed us to eventually upgrade to the full version of Premiere 6.0 for only $199.00 (buying Premiere by itself is about $500.00-$600.00). Premiere allows you to put plenty of graphics in your movies if you want to, but for really extensive motion graphics (such as the moving maps in "North American Escapade") we use Adobe After Effects, a powerful program specifically designed for motion graphics. We've now upgraded to Premiere 6.5 to take advantage of the new MPEG-2 export feature which will enable us to easily produce special DVD editions of our movies (see more info on DVD below).

Finally, when you have finished all your editing, you need to put your finished product into some sort of format for viewing.  This is again where you will need your Firewire card and appropriate software to get the video back onto your camcorder (or other recording device).  You have to process (sometimes called rendering) your production to get it into a form for export.  This is where the processing speed of your computer comes into play.  Depending on how many transitions and effects you put into your video, it can take hours to process it.  When it comes to digital video, get the fastest, most powerful computer you can.  Once you are done processing, you can put your video back onto mini-DV tape for future use (such as copying onto a VHS tape). Since all the transfer back and forth between the DV deck and the computer can put a lot of wear and tear on your video camera, we purchased a separate DV deck that we have connected to the computer. The deck we purchased is JVC's HR-DVS2U Mini DV/S-VHS dual deck video cassette recorder. This deck, although quite expensive, has been more than worth the money and is fully compatible with Premiere 6.0 (the deck runs very smoothly right from controls on the computer). It also makes very high quality VHS or S-VHS copies right off our miniDV master tapes. The blank VHS and S-VHS tapes that we used for our movies come from Tape World over the web.  They've got a variety of unpackaged, high quality VHS and S-VHS tapes in lengths as small as 5 minutes.  This allowed us to get exactly the size we wanted, so there was no wasted tape.  These tapes cames with neither cases, nor labels, which was perfect for us since we make our own labels and cases for the finished movies.  To make our labels, we purchase blank labels made by Fellowes. They sell CD labels, CD Jewel case inserts, and even VHS tape face and spine labels. We use a combination of the programs Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, which along with our Hewlett Packard 990 CSE color printer and HP Premium Plus Glossy Photo Paper, allowed us to generate fantastic tape labels and tape sleeves. Since we found that the printing on our tape sleeves tended to bleed if they got wet, we are now laminating our tape sleeves to protect them.

You can also make video for the web, or even put videos on CD-ROM to give to people.  For a few details on making movies on the web, and a demonstration of what it can look like, head back to Jay and Erica's Movie Page.  While recording back onto mini-DV tape retains the full magnificent digital quality of your production, video for the web or CDs needs to be compressed because there's just too much information to be stored.  The settings I used to compress the digital video for our web trailer can be found at the bottom of our movie page.

This year, we will finally be putting our movies out on DVD as well. The DVD format will be able to faithfully reproduce the very high resolution and quality of the digital video we shoot, and will also allow us to incorporate some really fun extras like a separate soundtrack containing director's comments, bonus footage, descriptive subtitles, and instant access to the individual scenes of the movie. We've added a Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD Recordable Drive to our computer system, and will be creating DVD-R discs for viewing on home DVD players and other computers. You may have heard that there's a battle going on between different DVD formats (DVD-R, DVD+R etc.) to become the standard, and this is true. At this point, it appears the most new home DVD players are capable of playing most types of DVDs (it's the older DVD players that are likely to have problems with burned discs), but if you'd like to learn a little about the issue, has a nice page covering the DVD format war. In order to create, or "author" DVDs, one needs a DVD authoring program (this allows you to take your video footage and compose all those fun menus and features that make DVDs great). We've purchased Pinnacle Impression DVD-Pro from Pinnacle Systems for our DVD authoring software.

Some DVD authoring issues we've had to address

Pinnacle Impression DVD-Pro is actually a very powerful program for its price range (it's been running in the $200-$400 range last I knew), and it has an impressive array of capabilities that I wanted to incorporate into my DVDs such as motion menus, multiple audio tracks, and subtitles. Generally you're not going to get these kind of features in the lower-end (~$100) DVD authoring programs. DVD authoring can be a complex process, and there have been a few issues that we've had to overcome in the building of our first DVD, "Northern Rockies Ahead". One of these was the size of the audio files. The standard audio that goes along with our MPEG-2 Video Export is a 48,000 kHz .WAV file, which is very high quality, but is not compressed at all and takes up a huge amount of space (these are essentially the same types of files on CDs). Since these files take up ~ 10 MB for every minute of audio, one 68-minute audio track on our DVD was taking up over 700 MB. Multiply that by three to cover the three audio tracks on our DVD, and essentially half the 4.7 GB of space (see more info on DVD storage space below) on our DVD was taken up by audio alone! The main MPEG-2 file for our movie itself was 3 GB, so basically we had already used up more than the entire space of the DVD without even adding special features and menus etc. So, something had to be done to conserve space. There was no way we were going to drop the quality of the video, since that is one of the reasons we wanted to to DVD in the first place. That meant finding a way to compress the audio. The most compatible compressed format for DVDs (one that every DVD player should recognize) was the AC3 or Dolby Digital format. This would allow me to drastically reduce the size of the audio files, while maintaining beautiful high quality sound. Unfortunately, everywhere I tried to find an AC3 encoder, I was confronted with huge price tags for encoder programs. I really wasn't an option to spend any more money on this problem, so I was stumped on what to do. Finally, I found a suggestion on the Pinnacle Impression Discussion Forum, which mentioned the program Besweet as a free AC3 encoding program. I downloaded it, tried it, and it was amazing. I encoded my stereo .WAV files into stereo (2.0 channel) .AC3 files at a recommened rate of 192 kbps. The files were now about 8 times smaller (less than 100 MB), sounded just as good as they did before, and they play great on all DVD players! If you do the math, you can see that the files are so small, you hardly have to worry about them taking up the limited space on your DVD, and you can use the space for more important things like high-quality video and special features. Another issue we've had is with subtitles. Northern Rockies Ahead has 370 individual subtitles. Unfortunately, due to the way Pinnacle Impression deals with the timing of the video, they were out of synch with the pictures by 0.1%, which resulted in a difference of over 4 seconds by the end of the movie. Well, it took us quite a while to change the timing of 370 subtitles by 0.1% to fit perfectly, but now they are in perfect synch with the video, and the result it really nice. Anyway, I'll elaborate on more issues we've found with DVD building as time permits, but those were two of the major hurdles we had to get over in the produciton of our first DVD.

The DVD-R discs that we're using are capable of holding 4.7 GB of information. However, because of the way the computer world talks about bytes, it turns out it is really only 4.37 gigabytes. This is a bit confusing, but I've copied an explantion from a Pioneer Multimedia DVD-R page that explains it pretty well.

DVD capacities are expressed in billion byte quantities. For example a single layer DVD holds 4.7 billion bytes (G bytes), not 4.7 gigabytes (GB). It only holds 4.37 gigabytes. A gigabyte is normally accepted in the computer world to mean 1024 x 1024 x 1024 bytes, or about 1.07 billion bytes. However in the real world normally "giga" represents multiples of 1000. DVD-R and DVD-RW media will hold precisely 4.7 billion bytes. This 7% difference between 4.7 and 4.37 has created a lot of confusion, because people will complain that they can't get a 4.65 gigabyte disc image to fit onto a 4.7 billion byte disc. This is very true, albeit confusing due to the lack of standards in specifying capacities of digital storage devices. DVD-R/RW writing software may report the available disc space of a newly erased DVD-RW as 4.489GB but it is in fact 4.37GB. So you need to keep your total project file size to less than 4.37GB.

So now we see that the largest file you could possible fit on a 4.7 GB DVD-R disc is actually only 4.37 GB. In fact, your project has to be even less than this because some space on the disc is required for formatting or other types of information. Other sizes of DVD-R media exist, so make sure you are getting the size you need. Some older discs are only 3.95 GB, and there are also double sided discs that can hold 9.4 GB.

The latest version of Impression also supports Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding, which can produce amazing digital surround sound (another advantage of DVD). However, a separate encoding program is required to actually generate the surround sound. As mentioned above, I found the free program, Besweet, which can actually encode Dolby Digital 5.1, although up to this point I have only used it to encode stereo (2.0 Channel) sound.

If you're interested in getting a digital video camera of your own, here are a few camcorder features that I've found to be useful for ski videography.

Hopefully this has been helpful in introducing you to what it takes to make digital videos, have fun and contact me if you have additional questions about my methods.


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