In this article I’m going to take a good look at three of the most practical video production software products on the market for the Macintosh platform. They are what I call "field production software" or "software monitors"—my own terms for them. If you work with a Windows PC, you may be familiar with DV Rack (recently renamed OnLocation by Adobe and reconfigured as a component of its CS3 Production Premium bundle). The three apps we’ll discuss in this article serve the same need that DV Rack/OnLocation fills for Windows users in the Mac video production world. (Note that OnLocation ships with the Mac version of Production Premium, but only runs on Windows.)
The three Mac-based apps will act like a field monitor to help you set up your shots. They all read the FireWire DV stream live from your camera and let you use your computer’s screen (usually a laptop) as a field monitor. All three apps give you various tools to help evaluate your camera settings before you take the shot, and they’ll even let you record live to your computer’s hard drive, much like a FireStore, but without the extra features. These three very innovative apps are DVDxDV’s Veescope Live, Red Lightning’s HD Monitor, and Divergent Media's ScopeBox.
You’d almost always be using a Powerbook, MacBook, or MacBook Pro in the field with these apps, so I tested them on a 17" Powerbook with 2GB RAM and a portable bus-powered OWC FW800 drive via the built-in FW800 port. I connected a Panasonic HVX200 via a WiebeTech Firewire 800/400 card in the CardBus slot. I followed up with a very brief check of performance on a quad-core G5 with 4.5GB RAM for a performance comparison.
I’ll cover these three applications, looking at documentation, interface, monitoring, zebra/scopes, recording, and extra features, progressing from the lowest to highest cost: Veescope Live, HD Monitor, and finally ScopeBox. I won’t cover every detail of each, but rather I’ll give a general overview in order to rank them and hopefully inspire you to try them out for yourselves. They cover a wide price range, and along with the features they all have in common, each has its own unique set of tools. All three have downloadable trial versions so you can test-drive them before you purchase.
VeeScope Live 1.02 beta
To begin with, let’s look at Veescope Live (VSL) by DVDxDV. It is the lowest priced of the three, and the most compact and basic, but it doesn’t lack in functionality and usefulness. At $100, it is a very nice package. If you are on a budget, or simply need basic functions that will make your on-site shooting experience easier, VSL will be all you’ll ever need. I should also note that during my last day of testing these apps I got a beta version (1.02) of Veescope Live, which should be out by the time you read this article.
Documentation: The supplied documentation is accessible via the VSL Help menu and is very nice and easy to understand. Since the application is so basic and easy to use, minimal documentation is needed (this is also true of the other two products in this comparison). Every function is covered in a concise manner. There are two keyboard shortcuts that I found handy for zooming the image to full screen, and one for opening and closing the tool drawer at the bottom of the screen. Aside from those, I don’t see a need for a lot of keyboard shortcuts here, due to its single simple screen/tool-drawer interface.
Interface: Of the three applications tested here, VSL is the easiest to use. The main video window is resizable by dragging the lower left corner. Along the bottom of the video screen is a drawer you can open and close, with five tabs for input, record/display, pattern, scope, and background settings. Each tab reveals its own specific settings (above, left).
Monitoring: In my testing with VSL, DV-SD video played back pretty smoothly. Turning on zebras or the chromakey function tended to introduce some very minor latency, or a stuttering of the video playback—but not nearly enough to interfere with setting up a shot or monitoring a recording session. HD 720 and 1080 both had slightly more latency, which increased over time while running VSL for 25 minutes non-stop. But it was still not enough to really interfere with the program’s basic purpose. Recording in HD modes, when latency was at its worst, got to be a little annoying after a while—particularly on the laptop. On the quad-core G5, latency was pretty much all but gone, as it was with the other two apps. All in all, I found the monitoring feature of VSL to be very usable, a great improvement over the LCD of a typical DV camera. If you’re shooting HD, this is a must-have minimum for true HD focusing. No HD-capable camcorder has an LCD adequate enough for true focusing when it’s of major importance. VSL, though it's the most basic and inexpensive of the three apps, is still a great improvement and proved itself to be very useful for this purpose. I even found setting up shots with SD video to be much easier using VSL. It was a real pleasure to be able to see so much more of my image’s detail before I hit the Record button! The monitor features a title/action-safe overlay, as well as an array of monitor adjustments: brightness, contrast, saturation, and tint. These adjustments are not set up in a step-by-step calibration fashion, but they’re useful nonetheless. You can also control aspect ratio (helpful with DVCPRO-HD 720’s aspect quirks), and there’s a very nice blue gun feature for evaluating your image.
Zebra/Scopes: VSL’s zebras are very nice with black for the high (white level) and white for the low (black level), and seemed to correspond closely to the zebras in the camera at the same settings. I found them very useful and very easy to read. Unlike the other two apps, you can’t set your own zebra colors in VSL, but these look good enough to be very usable in the field. I found it very easy to see them when shooting outdoor scenes.
As for scope overlays, VSL offers only waveform and vectorscope overlays. The video image goes to black and white when you turn on one or the other scope, making the scopes easier to see over the video. In extreme cases, being able to adjust the opacity of the video image was a great help in making the scopes much easier to read. The scopes showed up very clearly without dimming the video image in most cases. As with the other two apps, scopes and zebras are all easy enough to read and very useful in the field. I would have liked to see more detail in the scopes, though. If you need real pinpoint accuracy, they aren’t detailed enough.
Recording: Recording is very simple. You click the "Choose file . . . " button, and select a destination and a name for your recorded clip. Then you just hit the Record button. VSL does not support stopping or starting recording from the camera, so you have to hit Record on the interface. And that’s about it. It’s that simple. All recordings are in their native codec as a QuickTime file. As a producer who shoots tapeless almost exclusively now, this is a fine alternative to more expensive (and more sophisticated) tapeless recording solutions. I had the footage record directly to an external FW800 drive with no real problems at all. I do miss having a time code reading, however. It also takes a few moments to start up a recording session once you hit the Record button, and again when you stop and it closes the recording session. Not a problem, but the other two apps respond more quickly. And it doesn’t recognize the Record button on my HVX200. Not a bad thing, but it could be a handy feature to have.
Extras: For extras, VSL also offers chromakey and background image functions. The chromakey tab allows you to do live chromakeying while setting up your shot, which I found to be extremely helpful for that type of work. You can use the default chroma green setting, or change the chromakey color via a typical Apple color wheel color picker. You can also adjust luma, chroma, and saturation ranges, and T luma, T chroma, and T saturation, as well as H/L/S mixing controls. (The "T" in these settings refers to "transparency." For example, "T luma" refers to the transparent portion of the luma. All the T controls specify the transparent range of the color components.) The de-spill filter is really useful with various settings, and switchable from blue to green de-spill. You can even switch the de-spill function on and off with the click of a mouse, which made evaluating the shot easier.
The background function (above, left) allows you to choose a QuickTime movie or still-image file to run in the background when the chromakey function is enabled. Thus, if you already have your CG background, you can overlay your chromakey shot live on top of it in order to properly line up the live shot more closely. Although live recording of this keying work is not possible at this time, these functions still proved quite valuable in setting up chroma shots to match as closely as possible live-in-camera to greatly minimize work in post.
HD Monitor 1.0.1
HD Monitor (HDM) is a very impressive application that offers its own unique features and is priced at $499. It supplies more evaluation options than VSL, but there are no direct chromakey functions. That said, I found HDM well worth the price and very useful for more sophisticated productions. If I have to choose only one, it’s the best of the three apps, in my opinion, due to its clip manager and integration with FCP.
Documentation: HDM comes with a PDF user manual. Just like with VSL, it is simple, as the individual functions are not overly complicated. HDM does have a larger user manual since it offers many more functions than VSL. It even covers the necessary information you’ll need to create image files with an alpha-channel in Photoshop for its overlay function. The Help menu offers a very handy quick view of the keyboard shortcuts that can make learning and using HDM much more efficient.
Interface: Although a bit more complex than VSL, HDM (left)is still very useable and useful with only four windows in the main interface. There is the main video window, which is resizable across the whole computer monitor, just like in VSL. It gives a bit more info about the video stream with a shot clock showing how long you’ve been shooting your clip, the clip name, the remaining recording time, and a video zoom setting. And each window can be accessed or closed using keyboard shortcuts, making it a very easy interface to use.
There’s the Mini View window that allows a quick look at the raw video feed while the main video window has the various overlays on it. When you’re zoomed in, for example at 100%, you’ll only see a small section of your image. This allows you to zoom in and check details without having to mess with your main image view. You can also drag it around to box in the section of the image you need to evaluate. It’s a very handy feature.
The View Options window is small and compact, and it holds all overlay functions such as zebras and image overlays, center crosshairs, title/action safe guides, rule-of-thirds guides, and more—all of which are very useful tools for shooting in the field.
Finally, there is the Clip Manager window, which is the best part of this application. I’ll discuss this window in more detail later, but it is the one feature that puts this app over the top.
Monitoring: Monitoring was on par with VSL, with initial latency and its increase over time being slightly more minimal than VSL, but not by much. It will function with SD, 720 HD, and 1080 HD video. HDM can also flip and flop the video image, which is helpful when certain lenses do this to the video image in the camera. Plus there’s a 16:9 squeeze function that helps for 16:9 squeeze modes on non-16:9 cameras that offer that function. One feature I particularly like in the Viewer window is the ability to scale an image size in and out quickly, smoothly, and easily in one of three ways: via a drop-down menu, the mouse’s scroll wheel, or a keyboard shortcut. At 100% you are seeing a 1:1 pixel ratio; at 400%, a 4:1 ratio.
The other feature I really like is the pop-up menu in the Viewer window. Right-click in the window and a menu comes up letting you control the overlays, zebras, aspect ratio, and orientation. But it also has an optimize function that will shrink your viewer screen to fit the size of the image, eliminating all the empty gray area around the image. Zebra/Scopes: There are no scopes at all in this application, but the high and low zebra overlays can be turned on separately, and you can set the color and opacity of each independently. HDM does offer other overlays such as TV and title safe zones, canter crosshairs, thirds, 16:9/4:3 indicators, and audio meters. The color of these other overlay tools can be set by one master color control. If this app had just a vectorscope and waveform monitor (in color like ScopeBox’s), along with 720 support and a timecode readout, there’d be almost no reason to look at any other app but HD Monitor.
Recording: All recording is handled by the Clip Manager window (left), which is the major feather in HDM’s cap. Here, you can set a destination folder and name your clips, as well as assign shot labels, a rating, scene and take tags, comments, attributes, and log notes. The window shows a list of the shots you’ve recorded with a row of information such as clip name, duration, file size, creation date, and more. The ability to assign so much information and organize clips makes this the perfect tool for larger, more complex productions, especially if you want to go tapeless. There is also an XML-export function that will import your collection of clips, including all the metadata you’ve added, directly into an FCP project. This makes the clip manager very valuable and useful in the field. The Record button is in the main viewer window, so you can monitor your shot as you record it. As with VSL, I do miss having a timecode reading. But it responds to the Record button on my HVX200, which is a nice touch!
Extras: HDM also features an image overlay option that allows you to import a PSD file or a still frame from a clip you’ve recorded to lay over the video image for various image-comparison purposes. The user manual shows how to use this to compare shots, and how to create a PSD in Photoshop to use as an overlay image. If you shoot a scene and need to come back and re-shoot it, or get it from a different angle, you can use a still of your first take as an overlay, and be assured that your second take will match the first accurately, thus eliminating a potential post- production headache.
ScopeBox is the most expensive of our trio, with a price tag of $699.99. It offers two sets of scopes (four total) that neither of the other two apps offer. But it’s also relatively lacking in some respects, and does not supply any overlay/ keying assistance or clip- management functions.
Documentation: As with the other two, the ScopeBox documentation covers all the basic functions of the tools available in the software. It comes as a PDF document that is packaged with the application. But there is no help menu as with the other two apps, and the keyboard shortcuts are only available by looking at the actual menus.
Interface: This app boasts the prettiest interface (left) of the three by far, but it’s also the most awkward and cluttered. Every function, tool, and scope is its own window. These are all bound by the application’s master window. It’s important to note that there are keyboard shortcuts to add the various windows (known here as "palettes"), but there are no keyboard shortcuts to close the windows. Once a palette is open, hitting its keyboard shortcut only opens another instance of that same palette. You’d think it would close the palette that’s already open. I found this to be a tad awkward in actual usage in the field.
All palettes are resizable, and you can save custom window layouts, which saves ScopeBox from being a difficult interface to manipulate in comparison to the other two apps we’ve looked at. Setting up your own layouts means you have to move windows around and resize them every time you open or close one single tool or scope. I shoot outdoors a lot, and in a variety of settings, and my needs can change with each shoot. So any number of saved layouts sometimes fulfilled my needs on each shoot, but not always. If you shoot in the same setting over and over, then the custom windows function will take care of this issue for you.
My only other problem with the GUI is the black and dark gray interface. In the studio it’s nice and pretty. But outside, even with a hood on my PowerBook, it was too dark and I found it extremely difficult to see the borders, making moving and resizing very difficult.
The bottom of the application window has a blank field. When you click on a palette to highlight it, its controls show up in this field. This function eliminates some of the confusion of ScopeBox’s multiple-palette interface.
Monitoring: As with the other two apps, there is video latency. ScopeBox did not demonstrate any discernible improvement over the other two lower-end apps where latency was concerned, which was disappointing for a product that claims to compete with hardware scopes. I was also unable to sync to the Record button on my HVX, a glitch the folks at ScopeBox acknowledged as a Panasonic issue.
The image became clear only when I enlarged it enough to be able to focus accurately, which was the major drawback to this interface. First, I had to activate the Viewer palette, then hit a keyboard shortcut to "solo" that palette (which makes it fill the application window). Then I had to hit a second keyboard command to make the application window itself full screen. I would have expected one keyboard shortcut to make the video image go full screen, since that’s the first and main purpose of these types of apps. Also, when I had several windows overlapping each other, I had to go to a menu to choose which window to bring to the front. More reasonable keyboard shortcuts that function in a traditional Mac way are a needed improvement to this application.
SD, of course, had next to no latency (much as in my tests with VSL and HDM), and HD slowed it down as much as the rest. It is nice to be able to pull up a tool that lets you see the camera’s current time code, even if it takes room away from the main view of the image you’re trying to evaluate. That is one feature of ScopeBox that I really did like over the other two apps.
Zebra/Scopes: ScopeBox’s scopes are nice. You can set the colors as you choose, and they are easy to read against the video image and seem to match those in my camera pretty well. And I will say the scopes have more controls and function better than those in the other two apps. There are more scopes available in this app than the other two, including waveform and vectorscope, along with RGB and YUV parades, and luma and RGB histograms. They all have some very nice options available such as a sample rate, weighted or non-weighted, and monochrome or color-on-some. The color scopes just blew me away. But when you enlarge them too much, they seem to pixelate a lot. Again, these scopes and their individual controls are what make this app unique.
Are they as good as hardware scopes? I’ll leave that to some engineering lab to determine. But they are cheaper than hardware scopes, and actually look good and are responsive, considering the video-image latency. I will assume that an Intel Mac laptop will perform with less latency than a PowerBook. But then the majority of us are not on Intels yet.
Recording: Recording is another separate palette, in addition to all the other palettes that you may have open. Here you’d want to make a custom recording-window layout to quickly set up for your actual recording session. You have an option to enable or disable locking to the camera’s Record button. I found the HVX did not work with this option in HD mode, but did in SD 60i mode.
You are allowed to specify a reel name, a clip name, and the location to save the clips. The clip name is preceded by a number beginning with 1—that allows you to record several takes of a shot and later be able to track the order of those takes. It’s not anything near what HD Monitor offers, but that feature was what made HD Monitor unique. I did notice that audio in HD modes was very noisy and full of non-stop dropouts, as well as some static-like noise. Several clips recorded nothing but digital noise for a second or two at the very beginning of the clip. The audio recording was much better in DV mode, but HD made sound recording useless. This was no problem on the quad-core G5, although I don’t lug my seven-ton G5 along when I’m on location. The audio meters actually showed all four channels of the DVCPRO-HD format, and seemed to respond quite accurately.
Extras: The extras for this app are the extra scopes listed above, and the timecode palette. The frame rate is displayed in its own window, which can be handy in judging the latency stutter in the on-screen video image. But you have to be knowledgable about what various frame rates look like. It may also help you figure out if your system is being overloaded and not recording properly. On my PowerBook, the numbers jumped around so much from one extreme to the other that it was not a useful feature. The G5 showed much less erratic behavior of the FPS Badge, as it’s called. One very nice touch is the recording buffer. Just like in some cameras and tapeless recording devices, you can set a recording buffer to capture a specified amount of video before you actually hit Record. It loops the specified amount of time recording, then when you hit Record, it attaches that buffer to the start of your recording session. This could be useful for fast-action live events that allowed you to attach your camera to a Mac laptop. It is also able to interface with some I/O solutions such as AJA. But I don’t see this as something you’d drag your tower around for. This type of app is really for the field, where laptops are dominant.
I also really liked that I could open a QuickTime movie in SB and read all my scope feedback live as the movie played, or stop it on one frame (above, left). This could be a nice way to evaluate clips as a sort of quality-control measure before importing them into an FCP project.
After spending a lot of time with all three of these applications in environments ranging from studios to backyards, pow-wows, and a boat speeding through the swamps of southeast Louisiana, I found them all impressive, and believe my workflow could benefit from incorporating any of them. I was thrilled to set a GretagMacbeth color chart in front of my camera and check it against my screen. The feedback, and the resulting quality control it gave me over my image before I hit the Record button, was nothing short of fantastic. I should also mention that on a quad-core G5, almost all latency problems disappeared, and performance improved a great deal for all three apps—which probably bodes well for their use with Apple’s newer multicore laptops.
If you can’t afford hardware scopes and field monitors, or if you’re a student or a pro on a budget (aren’t we all?), any of these applications can make your life much easier without requiring you to make a huge investment in equipment. If we could take the color scopes from ScopeBox, the clip manager of HD Monitor, and the chromakey tools of Veescope Live, we could begin to have one application that would dominate the Mac shooting community. But then again, I’m still trying to find a cell phone with useful features I actually like, so it’s not as if there’s a perfect product out there serving all possible needs in any space.
Veescope Live is just killer for the price if you need to focus and evaluate levels, and especially if you do chromakey work. Along with the added features it promises to deliver in the future, it could really become a force to contend with—that is, if it stays in the same relative price range. It’s great, simple, and worth the money. I’ll rate VSL best for interface, but overall, I’ll rate it second. The lack of clip management knocks it down a peg. Still, it’s a fantastic value for the price.
The folks over at DVDxDV have let me in on some possible future upgrades on Veescope Live that sound amazing. One planned feature is an FCP plugin. You would then be able to import your Veescope Live chromakeying settings directly into its FCP counterpart. That way you can bring your keying settings over just as you had them set up in VSL. This is very important, because keying in VSL is nothing short of amazing (left). I’ve never set up keyed shots so quickly, precisely, and easily. The next iteration of VSL will also include a magnifying glass that will let you see your image details with a 1:1 pixel ratio, not to mention some much-needed clip- management features. I’m impressed with the enthusiasm and dedication over there at DVDxDV. This app gives the most bang for the buck.
HD Monitor is also very impressive. For the price, you get a fantastic group of tools. Add in a waveform and vectorscope (with color), and I’d rate it as the total king of the hill; but as is, it’s still a worthwhile product.
The interface is compact, fast, and straightforward, and it’s also well thought out. For the price, I think it will suffice for most end users. Like VSL, HDM does a great job for the price. The clip manager by itself is so useful and valuable, I have to rate this app as my favorite. Is the clip manager alone worth the $400 difference between this and VSL? Very marginally, to be honest, but it is by far the best feature of all three apps. I do like the streamlined interface and keyboard shortcuts. The lack of waveform and vectorscopes is disappointing. They’re the only two scopes I usually need on location. If they added those two scopes, and in color, for this same price, I’d be totally blown away.
ScopeBox is a tad pricey compared to the other two apps discussed in this article. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a really great application; I simply think the interface needs to be cleaned up. Are parade and histograms worth the extra money? The interface is not nearly as straightforward as the other two, though at a glance it’s visually prettier. Also, the interface is very hard to see with all that solid black when you’re outdoors, even with shades around you. I just don’t see the justi- fication for the price difference. To be fair, the ScopeBox folks claim it competes with hardware scopes and Windows-only software scopes that shouldn’t be priced this high either.
I think the most I’d pay for a product like this would be the $500 for HD Monitor. But with the promised upgrades to HDM and the low price of Veescope Live (which it could easily sell for a bit more money, honestly), some folks may be forced to come down in price and clean up their interfaces. I love ScopeBox, but I feel that compared to the other two, it’s a tad overpriced for what it delivers. It needs a more Mac-like interface in terms of looks and usability. If you do want to work on a tower with an AJA card, this would be the one to go with for sure. But on a laptop, if you don’t need histograms or parades, I don’t see the point.
ScopeBox really does shine when it comes to scopes. The color, weighting, and levels of sampling make these scopes really effective for situations that demand a great deal of accuracy. But for most of us shooting TV commercials, industrial training films, low-budget indies, and the like, the limited utility of the additional scopes just doesn’t justify the higher price. Are these fantastic scopes worth the extra few hundred bucks? That’s going to be a personal decision each producer will have to make on her own. The cluttered interface, and lack of any other tools beside the scopes, places this application slightly behind the others as my third-place pick in this lineup of apps. Let me qualify that by stating I don’t think any of these apps are bad products; they are all fantastic and deliver a lot of powerful tools most of us until now could not have afforded to own. Picking one over the others has not been easy.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine what features you need the most, and what price you’re willing or able to pay for those features. There are demo versions of each product available for download at the companies’ respective websites. I’d just warn against paying for features you won’t really use, and recommend that you be sure to pay a fair price for what you do need. No two of these apps are exactly alike, and all three are breaking new ground in making video production totally digital, if not totally tapeless. They’re not just monitors, and they’re not just scopes; their functionality can go well beyond those features. Any one of these apps can greatly improve the shots you get right off the bat. And we have lots of new features coming in future updates that I am confident will make these apps even more valuable in the field.
[Note: After this article was completed, brief testing was done on a 17" MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM. The video latency discussed above almost completely vanished when run with the identical setup on an MBP, as opposed to the G4/G5.]
Ben Balser is an Apple Certified Trainer based in New Orleans. He specializes in training and consulting, and also produces documentaries, educational material, and commercial work.