Review: Serious Magic Visual Communicator Studio 2-Editor's Choice
Posted Apr 18, 2005

Visual Communicator 2 Studio is a great tool for any videographer with in-studio green-screen needs, particularly on the corporate side. VC 2 improves on its Editor's Choice-winning predecessor with a retooled engine and boasts powerful real-time chromakey. New features include effective clip-trimming and the ability to re-sequence and re-shoot live-captured footage. The program is available in three versions: Web, Pro, and Studio, with the Studio version most recommended for videographers.

Web ($189.95) 
Pro ($289.95) 
Studio ($489.95)

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.

Video Intuition
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.

Action Area
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.

Tabs Left
If Visual Communicator 2 has a driver's seat, the tab panel is it. The Director Tab has the controls you'll use to control the Teleprompter and Action area when you rehearse or record.

The Actions tab lets you make timing, volume, and other adjustments to your Actions and Media. On most tabs, the visible controls change based on the type of media or effect selected. These controls might let you change the duration of an action, tweak the length of a pause, edit text in titles, trim video clips, or adjust colors.

Editing text from the Actions Tab can be a bit frustrating. If you click Title Editor (but only if you click it before you click any other option), the program opens a companion program called Alpha CG. Whether you edit a prepared screen or create a new one, you must save your work with new name, and then replace your original in the Action Tray.

The V-Screen Tab
One of the most powerful features of the program is its ability to handle green-screening, a.k.a. chromakeying, in real time. Briefly, this lets your announcer stand before a uniform screen (usually green, occasionally blue) while you record. The computer removes the background color, creating what graphics programs call an alpha channel. When you add a virtual set behind your central figure, your meteorologist stands before a live weather map or your correspondent appears to be broadcasting from inside the White House.

In VC 2, the V-Screen tab lets you select your input source. Both Pro and Studio allow more than one input source, including multiple cameras, composite video, S-Video, or a TV tuner. Then choose your background by dropping an image or video clip (or, on a slower PC, you can freeze an "animated background" as a still image) into place, and roll. The program automatically performs chromakeying and color correction in real time.

"Sturm and Drang" (Sound & Light)
All versions of VC 2 come with a professional-quality microphone that attaches directly to your computer's audio card. The Studio version accepts audio from two different microphones, but recommends that they be connected through the same device, which can control and synchronize the audio from both microphones and keep them in sync.

Since lighting is so important to successful chromakeying, VC 2's manual and online Help include a brief tutorial on setting up and positioning lights, including the principles of three-point lighting. [For more on three-point lighting fundamentals, see Jan Ozer's "Traveling Light," September 2004 EMedia, pp. 38-49.]

Media Files
A good variety of Media files comes with Visual Communicator 2, or you can import others from programs like Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Photoshop, or Ulead PhotoImpact. You can create titles within VC 2 using the Advanced Titler, or record video and audio files, right in Visual Communicator 2.

Recently the company announced an upgrade that allows closed-captioning. This feature currently outputs for Windows Media and is available as a free download from Serious Magic's Web site. Even easier, click "upgrade" from the Help screen. This feature enables government agencies, educators, and professional trainers serving the government to be in compliance with Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, which requires that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities. [For a close look at producing compliant closed captions for digital video projects, see Jan Ozer's "CC Writer," November 2004 EMedia, pp. 52-61.]

Wrap and Print
When you click the Finish button, a message confirms that VC 2 is now creating your customized titles and graphics. In a matter of seconds (possibly more on a slower machine), you'll see the main window. On our test machine, we could see the main window, with the video coming from our camera in the Output Monitor window at the upper left corner of the screen.

Green in Judgment
We generally found VC 2 easy to use. However, we'd like to see some small changes in future upgrades. For one thing, the Teleprompter is really not a word processor, although you can compose copy in your word processing software and paste it into the teleprompter. There's also an inconvenient bottleneck with installation. To install version 2, you must first install all three CDs of version 1, and then install the upgrade over the original, which is a bit cumbersome. However, these complaints are small. All in all, we see Visual Communicator 2 as a great tool for any videographer with in-studio green-screen needs, particularly on the corporate side. It's a definite Editor's Choice.

System Requirements

VC 2 Web: 800MHz+ Pentium 3 running Windows 98SE/Me/ 2000/XP with 128MB RAM; 650MB available HDD space for installation; 16MB AGP graphics card w/ 3D acceleration; Webcam/camcorder

VC 2 Pro: 933MHz+ Pentium 3 running Windows 98SE/Me/ 2000/XP with 128MB RAM; 2GB available HDD space for installation; 16MB AGP graphics card w/ 3D acceleration; DV camcorder

VC 2 Studio: 933MHz+ Pentium 3 running Windows 2000/XP with 128MB RAM; 2.2GB available HDD space for installation; 16MB AGP graphics card w/3D acceleration; DV camcorder