Review: Serious Magic Visual Communicator Pro
Posted Mar 4, 2004

Synopsis: Visual Communicator Pro brings broadcast-quality effects and compositing to the masses. What's more, it reaches down and lifts up PowerPoint users with the ability to create dynamic presentations for business, school, or fun without having to know the ins and outs of professional videography. With real-time video effects and transitions, attractive templates and graphics, music loops from SmartSound, and a version of Sonic's MyDVD, Visual Communicator Pro delivers both a video studio and a post-production facility in a single box.

Serious Magic's Visual Communicator Pro might, at first blush, seem to be a bit far afield from EMedia's usual focus. A decidedly consumer-oriented presentation software package, it doesn't do much that can't already be done with more professionally targeted tools from established players in the video production market.

But just as Sonic's MyDVD and Pinnacle's Studio have brought powerful, near professional-quality authoring and editing capabilities to within the grasp of consumers and hobbyists, so does Visual Communicator Pro bring broadcast-quality effects and compositing to the masses. What's more, it reaches down and lifts up PowerPoint users with the ability to create dynamic presentations for business, school, or fun without having to know the ins-and-outs of professional videography. With real-time video effects and transitions, attractive templates and graphics, music loops from SmartSound, and a version of MyDVD, Visual Communicator Pro delivers both a video studio and a post-production facility in a single box.

Its ace in the hole is Serious Magic's own Ultra software, which lets novices explore the heretofore pro-only territory of chroma keying. With the supplied "V-screen" backdrop and either a webcam or a DV camcorder, it's possible to chroma key in less-than-ideal environments and achieve results that can stand toe-to-toe with the kind of composited video you see every night during the television weather report.

In a former life, I was a music journalist and teacher, and so when it came time to create a test presentation, I stepped back into those shoes and quickly put together a brief overview of pop music in the 1990s, one that would be suitable for the classroom. Visual Communicator Pro is perfect for distance-learning applications, or even to make lectures available to students who miss a class. Heck, who am I kidding? With the ability to incorporate still images, video, and music clips, a VC Pro version of a lecture (or a client presentation, for that matter) is probably going to be more effective than the in-person variety.

Start Making Sense
VC Pro opens with a wizard that first asks if you want to create Professional Content for high-resolution presentations designed for television viewing or Web Content for projects to be viewed on the computer screen. Then, you're asked to create a "show" based on a Style—such as antique, financial, or contemporary—or a Topic—such as business, personal, or school. Your choice dictates what background and graphics template theme you want to apply to the entire project; you can also begin with blank video and mix-and-match elements from various themes throughout your presentation. I selected a contemporary look, and then created my opening slate. When you enter the video and presenter name, VC Pro adjusts the font size on-the-fly to fit cleanly into the provided template. It also comes bundled with Alpha CG, a broadcast-quality title generator that gives you more control over the elements on your title slates.

After entering my script in the Teleprompter window, I collected the images I wanted to use to illustrate pop music in the 1990s—shots of Kurt Cobain, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, an album cover from hair-metal abomination Warrant, and even a shot of Craig Werner, whose A Change is Gonna Come would be one of the course's required texts. I knew I'd be transitioning from image to image, and from image to my "talking head," so I began dragging effects from the Video Effects browser into the appropriate points on the Action Area to the right of the teleprompter. Available effects include peels, pushes, roll outs, zooms, and picture-in-picture.

Each effect button, or Action Tray, includes two windows. The one on the left indicates the type of transition, with an "A" representing the currently playing screen and a "B" representing the scene to which you want to transition. The window on the right is blank, waiting for you to drag into it the image or video file (you can also transition from an image back to the "talking head" footage you'll be shooting to finalize your presentation). You can adjust the duration of each transition, and you can also add a Smart Trigger that will pause the script until a video has finished playing, letting you resume reading your script when the action is done. VC Pro accepts most still and video image formats, including BMP, JPEG, Real, and WMV.

Remain in Light
When you've got all these elements in place, it's time to get ready to shoot the presentation itself. Rather than test the V-screen and Ultra's chroma key capabilities under optimal studio conditions (mainly because, like most people who'll use the software, I don't have access to optimal studio conditions), I simply hung the V-screen—a 5'x6' green vinyl sheet—on the wall behind my desk chair and propped the DV camcorder on a stack of books behind the computer monitor. All I had available for lighting was the two-bulb fluorescent ceiling fixture, and I hadn't even flattened out the V-screen, which meant that creases and shadows were clearly visible.

All of which meant that I had plenty of work to do in the Video Properties field. (If you're using a DV camcorder, you need to make sure it's automatic settings are all switched off.) I had to crank the color input to the max, as well as pump up the brightness; it took several attempts—adjusting the properties, calibrating the V-screen, then activating the background to see whether or not there were any green artifacts still visible. On my fifth attempt, I got the V-screen calibrated where I needed it, and was able then to compensate for some of the extra brightness on the camera end by making changes in the Advanced V-screen panel, where you can adjust the background level as well as change the color and transparency level of your foreground shot.

I also ended up changing from the original background image I'd selected to a motion background; you can use any of the dozen supplied backgrounds or your own video clips or still images. I still wasn't completely satisfied with my foreground color (my hair was a little green and VC gave me a sunburn I haven't had for several months), but given the poor lighting, I figured it was time to either move on or go out and buy a couple lamps.

That accomplished, finishing the project was a breeze. VC Pro's Rehearsal mode gives you a runthrough of your presentation, with the Teleprompter and Action Area both scrolling from bottom to top as you watch yourself in the GUI's Output Monitor (preview window), with a translucent pink bar indicating the text and effects that are live in the preview . This lets you make sure that your effects and transitions are happening exactly where you want them to be; most effects actually appeared a second or so after the point where they're specified in the Action Area, so some tweaking was necessary. You can also speed up or slow down the scrolling, and you can print out your script to get approval or edit it away from the computer.

Burning Down the House
When you're ready to roll, click the Record button and let ‘er rip. After you're done reading your presentation, you can review what you've just done. If it's satisfactory, it's time to click the Publish tab, which brings up the options of sending the video as an email attachment, publishing it to the Web, saving it to your hard drive or network, or outputting it to DV tape. Standard output resolution is 320x240, though you can scale that down to 160x120 or up to 720x480, and you can output to RealVideo, Windows Media Video, or AVI format. You can't author to DVD directly from Visual Communicator, but it's easy enough to import an AVI into the bundled MyDVD and publish your video to disc. If you captured an entire set of presentations in VC, or all the sessions of your course, you could then take advantage of MyDVD's full arsenal of menu templates and DVD navigation capabilities to give your overall project organization and accessibility.

That's a lot of "virtual studio" capability for $400, and if you just want the down-and-dirty, output to the Web basics (with no DV input capability), you can get Visual Communicator Web for $200 less. In addition to all I've looked at here, each version has the ability to import PowerPoint presentations and modify them into full-fledged video productions. That's good, because after creating and viewing presentations with Visual Communicator Pro, PowerPoint slideshows just aren't gonna cut it anymore.

Visual Communicator Pro
$399
www.seriousmagic.com

System Requirements
• Windows 98/98SE/ME/2000/XP
• 933mHz or faster processor
• 128MB RAM
• 500MB HDD
• 16MB AGP graphics card with 3D accelerator