Are you certain that what you're seeing is real and not a figment of your imagination? That the video you're shooting really looks as it appears in your viewfinder or flip-out LCD? Skilled magicians would have us believe that they have cut one of their assistants in half, made a red convertible disappear, or are able to defy scientific explanation by lifting a person into the air only to remove all supports while the assistant floats seemingly weightless.
While it is undoubtedly enjoyable to watch, this visual trickery (such as the kind we all imagine we can achieve by "fixing" our shots in post) should be avoided at all costs while you're shooting. It is important to "know" what you're seeing, especially with regard to current DV camera and LCD monitor technology.
Given the portability of production equipment these days, which allows most of us to work with compact cameras, modest lighting rigs, and wireless and near-invisible microphones, the kind of professional image-analysis equipment that fills broadcast trucks can seriously cramp our style. After all, it's the portability, compact construction, and unobtrusive setup of our equipment that gets many event videographers in the door (literally) and makes possible the kind of from-the-hip shoots we do routinely these days. But all that portability has come at a cost. Because we rely on on-camera indicators (or at best a small field monitor) to show us what our camera is "seeing" and recording, it has become a bit of a guessing game to actually know what your image looks like. For instance, how bright are your whites or how accurate are the colors showing up on your video, relative to what you see with your own eyes? On many occasions, people come back from an event or corporate shoot only to realize that what they shot doesn't look at all the way they thought it did.
Which image is accurate? The viewfinder? The flip-out LCD screen? Even if you have the luxury of having a field monitor, how can you be certain of what your levels and colors actually are? Monitors can be calibrated and LCD screens can be adjusted, but to truly know what your image is you'll need a scope.
Unlike monitors, scopes break down the video into levels and color signals. So it doesn't matter if the contrast or brightness is off on your monitor, the scope will display the color and levels as they are actually being recorded. Up until now the only way to view and ensure that your recording levels were acceptable was to lug around bulky and expensive waveform monitors and/or vector scopes.
Divergent Media has developed a great solution for this problem called ScopeBox. It is the first and only video toolset designed to work on Macs. ScopeBox is a suite of video monitoring software tools. It should be familiar to those of you who know DV Rack (developed by Serious Magic, now part of Adobe). However, up until now this type of software was only available for Windows-based machines, and at present Adobe has announced no timetable for porting DV Rack to the Mac (along with its other key postproduction tools, which will be available for Mac OS in mid-2007). For more information on DV Rack, and Adobe's plans for the product, see Lee Rickwood's review.
One of the features that makes ScopeBox such an innovative product is that it can work with any QuickTime-supported capture device. This enables you to view the video signal through a FireWire port on a deck or camera. ScopeBox can also access the video feed from many computer capture cards and devices, such as AJA, BlackMagic, and even an iSight camera, in SD or HD.
ScopeBox can also break out the audio and video inputs, which creates enormous flexibility for how and what you capture. It has an independent timecode source that can lock onto serial RS-422 connections. All of this being said, ScopeBox doesn't cut corners on the quality of the video. The preview monitor and all of the scopes display each and every scanline (all of the pixels) so there is no sub-sampling or scaling of the image. My experience with Divergent Media's ScopeBox was as a 30-second download. It was a quick and easy install. A minute later I was set up and ready to scope out my video levels. I was surprised how simple, yet efficient, the ScopeBox software is.
A Clean Set of Palettes
Don't be fooled by ScopeBox's straightforward design; it has a powerful set of features available at the touch of your fingertips. The software includes a host of tools that are broken down into individual palettes that you can add or remove in the ScopeBox window. They include a Preview Monitor, Waveform, Vectorscope, Audio Meters, Luminance Histogram, RGB Histograms, RGB Parade, and even a Direct Disk Recording feature.
For those of you who haven't had a lot of experience with waveform monitors and/or vector scopes, here's an abbreviated explanation: A waveform monitor is a special type of oscilloscope that breaks down the video image into corresponding levels of brightness or luminance. When you look at the video image, the scanlines from the waveform monitor will display in relation to the video's brightness on a scale from 7.5-100% in the same position.
The first thing that jumped out at me in ScopeBox's implementation was the color waveform monitor. Having spent the past 15 years looking at green raster running around on a traditional waveform monitor, it was a welcomed surprise. I realized right away how helpful it would be when working with green/blue screens. It is immensely useful to know not only where your video levels are, but to actually know which colors are hitting where on the scope. For those of you who are partial to viewing a waveform monitor in a more traditional way, you can also view it in the familiar green display.
Configuring the Preview Monitor
Like all the palettes in ScopeBox, the preview monitor is adjustable in size and keeps up with the frame rate of your video. All the palettes are not only adjustable, but you can customize them through different option choices. The preview monitor can quickly and easily zoom in to 200% for critical focus checking. You can calibrate it by adjusting the contrast, brightness, and saturation. It even includes a "blue gun" feature.
The preview monitor has many configurations to choose from and customize with. ScopeBox has the option to overlay Zebras, so you can see if any part of your image is overexposed. That option can be combined with Chroma Zebras, which will show you what colors are overexposed, so you'll know if you're getting good video. I'm especially impressed with the overlay features, including center marks, rule of thirds, letterbox masks, title safe, and graphics safe. These enable you to easily see the composition of your shot.
Aside from the waveform monitor and vectorscope, there are two additional unique scopes that you will likely find useful. The RGB Parade will likely be familiar to producers who use NLE editing software. It's a great tool to quickly check to see how each channel of your RGB video signals is coming across.
There is also an RGB Histogram that is useful when you want to see how the contrast is broken down into the three channels. This enables you to see if your color saturation has a nice, even range or if it's lumped up in one area.
Not only is ScopeBox an impressive suite of video scopes, but it's also a direct-to-disk recorder. It can record to either a QuickTime movie or a native DV file. After recording, you can drop the files straight into the NLE of your choice and start editing.
ScopeBox also includes a buffered recording option so it can record up to the last 30 seconds into memory. That way, you can rest assured that you'll never miss a shot when recording.
Another handy feature is "record lock," which syncs ScopeBox up with a DV camera. When you hit the record button on the camera it triggers the recorder to start recording in ScopeBox. This is very handy when working solo or with a small crew!
ScopeBox also comes with a VU meter palette that should be a welcome sight to anyone who has squinted at the diminutive audio display on an LCD panel. The VU meter displays -96db to 6db so it gives a more gradual display than most camcorders are able to do, making it much easier to keep an eye on your audio levels.
The Bottom Line
With the ability to monitor all aspects of your video, as well as recording directly to disk, it's easy to see how valuable ScopeBox would be out on location. But you shouldn't overlook the value of applying all of ScopeBox's great tools into your editing environment. By integrating ScopeBox in your NLE, you can have accurate, instant feedback of the quality of your video. You can check your video levels by using ScopeBox to open your video files before you send them out the door.
Scopebox is a noteworthy end-to-end production tool. Since evaluating ScopeBox, I've added two additional sets for both of our field production units, replacing our waveform monitors. If you're editing in a Mac environment, ScopeBox is a powerful scope toolset. It should be noted that ScopeBox does not yet support HDV, but they're hoping to by spring 2007. At its price point, ScopeBox is a valuable investment for either field or post work—and even better, as one piece of software that can do both.
Todd Gillespie has been shooting/chopping/animating for broadcast/cable for 10 years. He now works in television production at UC-Santa Barbara. Todd lives on the California coast with his wife and three children.