No Filter
Posted Jun 1, 2008

We’ve all heard that old saying that those who can’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. But few of us probably recall who said it first (George Santayana), which gives you some idea of how effective it was when our high school history teachers trotted out that quote in order to make, say, the abuses of the medieval Byzantine aristocracy seem less dull and remote, and instill in us a sense of history as a living thing.

The fact is, we all know at least a little history, and in most instances what we don’t know (or allow ourselves to forget) says less about how hard we studied in school than who we are, where we came from, and when.

I was reminded of this in late April when Hillary Clinton challenged Barack Obama to a "Lincoln-Douglas-style" debate. The madcap crew over at FOX News decided to use Clinton’s suggestion to play a practical joke on an unsuspecting young intern: "Go get us some video on the Lincoln-Douglas debates." Of course, when it came time to have a knowing on-air laugh at the intern’s expense, whom did they show on screen but Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who had little in common with Lincoln debate opponent Stephen A. Douglas besides the first seven letters of his last name.

I don’t expect FOX News commentators to be experts on Lincoln’s 1858 senatorial campaign (or the fact that Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would have agreed on the key issue of those debates, the right of the federal government to determine whether new states would be slave states). The possibility that they didn’t know which Douglas(s) debated Lincoln is less striking than the other thing their gaffe tells us: When Clinton proposed a Lincoln-Douglas debate with Obama, the first notion that came to their minds was white versus black. And that association has less to do with what they know about their country’s past and present than how they see it.

But what about the intern who snapped to it and dashed to the archives to dig up video footage of an 1858 debate? I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, a time when older generations marvelled at a mass-media world where everything was televised. Three years into the YouTube era, it’s pretty clear we had no idea what everything was.

For someone like that FOX intern, who has grown up in the web video age, it might not be entirely outrageous to guess that footage of any major political event—albeit, one that’s 150 years old—could be found in a major broadcast network’s archive. After all, everything that has ever been televised seems to be readily available online to the public at large. And as for any late-breaking story, it’s certain that if the news outlets didn’t catch it, some handheld-shooting bystander did, then followed the wild wild web’s "publish then filter" maxim, and got it online.

However you feel about the democratization of news and the surfeit of unrefined video online, the good thing about the amateur video craze for pro producers is that it’s pushing technology development, and technology developed for consumer video producers (there’s a sign-of-the-times phrase) is finding its way into our wheelhouse. After months of toying with our emotions with semi-pro AVCHD cameras such as the AG-HSC1U and the single-chip shouldermount HMC70, at NAB 2008 Panasonic presented the $4,500 HMC150, which appears ready to go Lincoln-Douglas with the 1/3" HDV three-chippers that dominate our space (Sony FX1/Z1U, Canon XH A1, etc.). It’s the first AVCHD model to support the full 24Mbps of the AVCHD spec, and like every AVCHD model on the market, it embraces the tapeless acquisition future. If you wanted any more evidence of tape’s demise, you needed look no further than JVC’s MR-HD200, a new SDHC and HDD recording unit for the HD200 that records full-res QuickTime MOVs.

The fact that the MR-HD200 records to an edit-friendly format is, to me, the best news of the show; it's important to remember that HDV, like AVCHD, is not a format designed for editing, and why that fact hasn't slowed user adoption, especially on the AVCHD side. Twenty-four hours after returning from NAB, I found myself shooting duelling consumer AVCHD cams at a kid-centric Passover seder with a very knowledgeable video hobbyist—he was raving about the built-in zoom microphone and automatic face-detection feature on his Sony HDR-SR12—who’d been shooting video avidly for years and never once considered editing it.

I suspect this is typical of AVCHD’s main demographic, which may explain why Adobe has yet to add AVCHD import to Premiere Pro. The other prevailing theory (and Adobe’s explanation) is that the H.264-based codec is such a bear to edit; just compare the AVCHD editing experience in Final Cut Pro (which converts AVCHD footage to the eminently editable ProRes 422), and Vegas, which supports native AVCHD editing. I tried editing AVCHD footage in Vegas and (no fault of Sony’s) watched it bring my Core Duo to its knees. Never again—at least until I upgrade to a quad-core machine that can handle it without sputtering.

For now, Cineform’s AspectHD—which bloats file sizes but yields great-looking footage that edits like a dream—is the only way to go on the Windows side. Granted, it builds in file-conversion time that diminishes a tapeless camera’s straight-to-edit appeal, but you can always use that time to remind yourself what it means to live at this point in history: However filter-happy an editor you may be, it’s a publish-then-filter world. Just ask FOX News.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EMedialive.com and runs FirstLookBooks, a book review blog.