Visiting the Ulead booth at NAB 2004, I noticed something about their software line that I'd never picked up on before: all the products basically look the same. Unifying the look and feel of production software applications is a big deal these days, and companies like Adobe, for example, tend to make a big deal of it when they start to get it right. In part, that's because for Adobe, Pinnacle, and others whose product lineups are a mixture of homegrown talent and established stars picked up on the free agent market, getting the motley crew to look like something resembling a family poses a significant challenge.
I don't really know if Ulead's selection of pro and consumer apps—the prosumer Studio Quartet, featuring PhotoImpact, MediaStudio Pro, Cool 3D Studio, and the Editor's Choice-winning DVD Workshop; and the entry-level products DVD MovieFactory 3 Disc Creator and VideoStudio—sprang from the same gene pool. But with the exception of PhotoImpact, they sure do look like it. Big preview window, same sort of slider and controls, same color scheme, similar arrangement of pulldowns and tool panels, (almost) identical asset collection windows, and similar top-left option panels. My own collection of Ulead applications is scattered over several PCs, so it's hard for me to confirm every detail of this aesthetic unity, but the impression of a well-matched set remains strong.
For the Studio Quartet, as with the Adobe Video Collection, the "unified look" serves a functional purpose: it's a key piece of the integrated workflow puzzle. (The other, more function-specific pieces are file interchange and cross-launching of programs and windows, something Adobe does better than Ulead.) One thing that's cool about the unity of the Ulead products, I'd argue, is that it makes it easy to move from one tool to another and feel like you're in familiar territory, and, what's more, easier to make the leap from an entry-level tool to a more sophisticated application. Apple got it half right with Final Cut Express, reducing the functionality but not the operative complexity of Final Cut Pro (kind of like teaching your child to swim by hurling her headlong into the shallow end of the pool), and Adobe may soon make the same concession/mistake with Premiere Elements. But my introduction to Ulead came with the two entry-level tools, VideoStudio and MovieFactory, and I've found it much easier to make the jump to MediaStudio Pro (MSP) and DVD Workshop than, say, from Pinnacle Studio to Pinnacle Liquid Edition. There's very little in Studio to prepare you for Edition; if there are similarities to be found in the interfaces, they're too subtle for me.
One could easily make the argument that the target market for Liquid Edition isn't really ex-amateurs who maxed out Studio's capabilities, and that most Ulead MSP customers aren't really folks who outgrew VideoStudio, but I've spent enough time around salespeople (and been inundated with enough advertising and pitches) in my time to know that selling is nine-tenths upselling. And whatever the merits of Pinnacle Studio and Liquid Edition (and they're legion), the upsell path from VideoStudio to MediaStudio Pro is simply much clearer. And the learning curve, moving from just about any Ulead application to another, is as close to non-existent as you'll find in the digital studio space.
Which makes the direction Ulead has taken with the new features in VideoStudio 8—which we're here to review, if you hadn't guessed by now—interesting, since most of what they've added, it seems to me, fills the space between a DIY entry-level tool like VideoStudio and automatic tools like muvee autoProducer, rather than the mezzanine between VideoStudio and MediaStudio Pro. VideoStudio's nearest competition, Pinnacle Studio 9, looked in both directions in its most recent release, adding both automatic editing on the toe-dipper side and cleaning effects, spatial audio panning, and third-party plug-in support for more ambitious types.
VideoStudio 8 doesn't sacrifice any of the strengths that have defined it as a mainstream entry-level tool and helped define the category itself. But the key new features, for the most part, expand the software either in a lateral direction or, in the case of some great new automatic editing features, occupy the space etched out by autoProducer and MovieCreator. One thing we've never seen in these parts is a new filter in the automatic Movie Wizard that actually identifies poorly lit or shot segments of a clip and removes them from the final production. Version 8 also adds MPEG-4 output; SmartSound support; some basic, automatic pan-and-zoom in slideshows; a neat oldtimey duotone feature; and support for the Neptune Web hosting and streaming service. There are also new features to grow on here—some nice audio filters and very easy picture-in-picture (I added PiP to one project without even realizing it). But for the most part, VideoStudio 8 is about serving entry-level editors' needs, and not about serving as a prosumer stand-in, like Studio 9, which makes sense: Studio 9 users who outgrow Studio, arguably, have nowhere to go in the Pinnacle line without learning an entirely new interface in Liquid Edition. VideoStudio 8 users with pro ambitions, by contrast, can make a very easy transition to MediaStudio Pro. Which is all the more reason to keep them off each other's feature-set turf.
Off to See the Wizard
My first instinct with a tool like VideoStudio is to jump in and do some editing of my own, but most of the new stuff is in the Movie Wizard, so it's well worth stopping here first. On the other hand, with a consumer tool like VideoStudio, it's always worth asking what if anything applies to the more or less professional world of the digital studio. The question usually is, what can I get done here fast, and what can the software do for me that I would otherwise have to do manually and painstakingly?
A couple of things come to mind here: slideshows, which are generated automatically from images imported in batches into the timeline, with preset styles, automatic (basic, tasteful) pan and zoom, and lots of royalty-free audio for setting the mood (you can also add your own track and match the slideshow duration to it, of course). What you don't seem to be able to do with the pan-and-zoom is the real-time preview and adjustment you get with Roxio Easy Media Creator 7; however, what the Ulead zoom engine seems to do with the images isn't nearly as aggressive as some of Roxio's preset moves (which include dramatic zooms that get too close for lower-resolution images, and pans that often swing too far to keep the subject in frame), so you're less likely to need to tweak it.
More interesting is the AutoEdit feature, which not only automatically edits a set of clips into a movie of your desired length and pace, with theme-driven transitions and the like, it also includes an unprecedented (to my knowledge) filter that looks for poorly lit and shot scenes and cuts them out. I tried it out a few times with some clips that I knew had dark and fuzzy scenes, and results were mixed—it was hard to tell if some segments were cut for time or quality. But it did manage to excise some of the worst scenes, which could be helpful not only to novice users who don't know how to trim their clips, but also business users who don't have time to review their video with a fine-tooth comb. As with any automatic editing, you lose some control in the process, but that's a trade-off Ulead can safely assume most users are aware of going in.
The other, more familiar aspects of automatic editing tools, also available in Ulead's AutoEdit, are filters and tones designed to create a particular style for the edited video, be it event-specific (like a birthday or wedding) or just a retrospective mood, as with the sepia filter designed to give an old-time look. Ulead also supplies theme-related background music for auto-edited clips; you can replace the music with your own selections, and adjust the volume of the added-on music relative to the audio native to the clip.
The DIY Approach
More familiar to longtime VideoStudio users and video editors are the software's main Edit window and its two signature strengths: Multi-trim for multiple start- and end-point clip-trimming and that trademark mammoth Ulead preview window, also expandable to full screen. I've sung Multi-trim's praises elsewhere—namely, May's MovieFactory 3 review [pp. 40-43]—and probably don't need to do so again, except to say that clip-trimming is a feature of every video editor, and every video editor should have a Multi-trim feature like Ulead's.
I like the big preview window, too, although it has its limitations. VideoStudio 8 has two preview modes, Clip and Project. Clip previews just the clip in question, beginning to end—nothing before, nothing after, no additional effects, sounds, filters, or preceding or succeeding transitions. Project previews the whole project, that is, everything going on in the project in the time stretch you're previewing. One problem I encountered during Project preview is that, even with a fast PC (the 2.4gHz testbed Sony P4 VAIO) with plenty of RAM and a healthy Matrox graphics card, a Project preview with multiple effects (I had some PiP effects, among other things) proved more than it could handle. The video sputtered, then stalled out entirely when it reached a transition or new clip, although the audio continued.
I spoke to Ulead's Travis White about this and he suggested that running that big preview window with a high screen resolution might be causing the problem—a problem that might not arise with a smaller preview window. I knocked the screen resolution down a peg and that solved the problem. Playback smoothed out and overcame all the speed bumps. It's a worthwhile tip, since these days you expect to be able to preview effects in real-time, at least in a consumer tool that promises real-time preview in large measure because the effects you can do aren't all that extensive or processor-intensive.
In the main video editor, VideoStudio does everything you'd expect quite well: clean capture, fluid and no-learning-curve storyboard and timeline editing, and effortless access to transition effects and titles. It's easy to add audio clips and narration, too, and I like the new audio filters, which include amplify, long echo, normalize, remove noise, and stadium. Amplify, normalize, and remove noise are configurable, as you'd expect them to be, and it's easy to preview the impact of the filters you apply and adjust or re-order them.
One thing that's a bit confusing to me is the presence of "Edit" tabs in both the right and left top panels. One is "Edit" in the generic sense—cut, paste, undo—the other returns you to the Edit window. EMedia readers may be able to keep them separate; I seem to click the wrong one every time.
Share the Land
Once you're done editing your video, it's time to share it. For many of us, that means authoring and burning a DVD, and VideoStudio is well-equipped for that, incorporating a limited version of the company's popular MovieFactory application (it's limited in the sense that, for one thing, you don't get as many templates, and naturally you don't get the extravaganza of supplemental applications in the current MovieFactory 3 Disc Creator).
What's interesting here are some of the new options. In addition to output as a DV-AVI file for use in another application or writing back to tape, you can also make MPEG-1 and -2 files as well as RealVideo and WMV, and format your output as NTSC or PAL. If you select Create Video File and then Custom, you have a wealth of options for codec, resolution, frame rate, and more.
By clicking Share Video Online, you can also render and compress video for uploading to Neptune.com, a consumer site designed for hosting, serving, and streaming consumer rich media content. After a free 7-day trial, you can buy space on the site for an annual fee (150MB is $49.99) and upload video, audio, photos, and slideshows at will.
Neptune is decidedly consumer stuff in name, but interesting all the same, and not without potential business applications for quick and easy rich media content sharing, although to some extent that may depend on how many end-users Neptune is equipped to serve at any given time.
But it's nice to see Ulead expanding VideoStudio's reach on the output end. At whatever level you edit it, digital video is ultimately a communication tool, or at the very least something to be shared. And even as we've all moved to DVD, and pushed for the integration of video editing and DVD authoring, DVD isn't the be-all and end-all of video distribution, and sites like Neptune.com, well-embraced by Ulead here, make it amply easy to distribute edited video in other effective ways.