About four years ago, we reviewed a $12,000 dedicated PC that captured a live video feed, rendered it, and wrote its file to DVD in almost-real time. Now, Serious Magic offers Visual Communicator 2 (VC 2), a software program that performs virtually the same tasks on any high-end, standard PC for less than 4% of that price. The program comes in three versions: Web, Pro, and Studio. We reviewed VC 2 Studio, which is probably the version best suited to the needs of professional videographers.
All versions of the program will run on a Pentium 3-class processor; the company suggests more processing power for live video and "green-screening." So, to give the program its best shot, we tested it on the new Sun W2100z with dual 64-bit AMD Opteron processors, running Windows XP Professional. (Yes, Sun now runs Windows.)
By default, the program opens to a wizard that helps you select—and then guides you through the customization of—one of the program's pre-built templates. VC 2's "Studio" version first lets you optimize your project for either broadcast (with high-resolution graphics and titles and a "safe" viewing area) or Web content (which fills the entire screen at a lower resolution). You then pick a theme from among 25 broad categories, each with a particular look, from antique to contemporary. In turn, each of those templates offers a wealth of options, from "opening slate" to "closing graphic." Unfortunately, VC 2 doesn't display a sample of the screen you're creating as you go along, so it takes a keen eye and a good memory to put together a unified look.
Need to get something on the air fast? When you're in a hurry, you can simply pick a "professionally made, TV-quality show ready for your content." Alternatively, you can save your settings from any show that came out especially well as a "one-click" video, which you can thereafter launch directly from VC's "Start" menu. This is particularly helpful for regular segments that need to be updated frequently, such as traffic reports or daily briefings.
Once your template is set, you can begin adding content. VC takes input from either a camcorder or a Webcam. In deciding which to use, remember that "you get what you pay for." Accordingly, Serious Magic recommends a digital video camcorder or other high-resolution DV input device that connects to your computer via FireWire/1394/i.Link. However, you can also create shows consisting entirely of pictures, titles, graphics, and pre-recorded video clips.
What's New in Visual Communicator 2
EMedia readers will recall Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen's March 2004 review (pp. 40-42), in which Visual Communicator roared out of the gate with an Editor's Choice in its very first iteration. Unafraid to mess with a good thing in order to make it better, in VC 2, Serious Magic has retooled the program's fundamental engine, while preserving much of its intuitive user interface.
New features include the ability to trim content from the beginning and end of both video and audio clips. You can trim video clips right in the Action Area, while the Duration Bar shows you graphically how long each clip runs.
Another great new feature is real-time "scrubbing," which allows you to watch your show as you scroll up and down in the Teleprompter/Action Area; transitions will run, and video clips will scrub. (VC 1 displayed pink bars in the Teleprompter/Action Area indicating when transitions and clips would run, which was useful but not nearly as helpful as watching what's happening in real time.) If you're filming live, the live feed will show; if you previously recorded your camera feeds, then the recorded content will also scrub.
You can shoot segments in or out of sequence, and re-record any segment. You can even add or change media inputs while you're rehearsing—or even recording—a show. You also can make certain changes to a completed show without having to re-record the whole show.
VC 2's layout is basically intuitive. When you're shooting video, the Output Monitor Window displays the video from your camera. Or when you double-click an effect or media in an Action Tray, the Monitor displays a preview of that item. When you Rehearse, Record, or Review a show, the Monitor displays the show.
Use the Teleprompter window to enter and edit your script. Then use the teleprompter to read your text, as it scrolls up the screen, while rehearsing or recording.
The Rehearse button runs your show without recording, so you can check and adjust action timing. The Record button runs your show and records the video with all your final adjustments. The Review button plays back your recorded show. Once you've recorded a show, Publish lets you make a copy for streaming, progressive download, or DVD.
The Action Area is where you place and arrange the Action Trays that hold your Media, including camera input, pre-recorded videos, audio, and special effects. "Actions" scroll up the Action Area in time with the words in the Teleprompter whenever you're rehearsing or recording.
The left side of an Action Tray can contain an Action, such as a dissolve, wipe, or other video effect. That Action determines how the Media in the right side of the tray is introduced to the video.
The right side of the Action Tray holds the Media—the video, audio, or graphic file that goes with the Action. A Camera icon here means that this Action will contain live video from your currently selected Video Input Device. VC 2 Studio allows up to three live cameras at a time.
Finally, the Media Area (below the Output and Action areas) displays icons for the content that you might add to your show. Think of it as a media library categorized by format, style, project, or topic. You can also use it like Windows Explorer to browse the files on your hard drive.