In August 2007 I reviewed an excellent product called Veescope Live in a roundup of software-based field monitors for the Mac. Veescope Live has come a long way since then through some great updates, and the company has also added some other nice products to the DVDxDV Veescope line. Today the line consists of four tools: Veescope Live, Veescope Hub, Veescope Key, and Veescope Signals.
I'll look briefly at each of these. Veescope Hub, like Veescope Live, is a stand-alone application, while Veescope Key and Veescope Signals are Final Cut Pro (FCP) plug-ins. Now, let's get started and look at what each of these products can do to enhance your workflow.
The first application in this line that I'll review is Veescope Live (Figure 1, below). Live is what I call a "software monitor" application. Its first purpose is to take the FireWire feed from your digital camera into your Mac to use the computer's screen as a larger video monitor. This function is really nice. I have used it numerous times with my Panasonic AG-HVX200, and I have more recently begun to use it with my AG-HPX170. I have associates who've used it with a AG-DVX100 as well as other video cameras. It can do a 1:1 pixel ratio and adjust between 16:9 and 4:3. There are a lot of controls for balancing out the image properly too. With an HD video camera, you really do need a monitor larger than any of the tiny LCDs that manufacturers put on cameras these days. If you don't have the money for a larger LCD on your rig, Veescope Live is a great alternative. It has saved me from getting shots out of focus many times! And at a price of only $100, you really can't beat it. It works with DV, HDV, and DVCPro HD. I'm sure there are other HD formats it will read, but those are the ones I've used with it. It will also overlay title and action safe lines so you know for a fact that your talent is staying within the safe zone with room for titles to fit, if needed.
But that's not all it does! It also records your video stream in its native format to a QuickTime file on your local hard drive. So even if you're running tape, you can capture the stream off the FireWire feed to a digital QuickTime file. You don't even need to have your camera recording, just turned on and feeding a QuickTime-compatible video stream out the FireWire port. Effectively, it's tapeless acquisition without a tapeless camera or add-on device-all you need is the software, your MacBook, and a FireWire cable. You simply hit the space bar to start and stop recording, just as with preview and playback in FCP. It's that easy. And each time you record a new file, a file name is created with an incrementally increasing suffix number so that you can track your takes and not have to take the time to rename them each time you start recording.
But wait, there's more-it also does live chromakey feedback. It won't record the key, but it will let you set up a key live so that what you see on your laptop screen is exactly what your shot is going to look like in post. When I've used this feature in my own shoots, it's really helped me to evaluate my lighting setup. I can even take a still of my proposed background or record a QuickTime movie file for the key, pull it into Veescope Live, and Live will place it behind my live key preview. It can show a single frame of a QuickTime file or loop playback of a QuickTime file in the background of the key. This enables me to make sure that my talent is lit to match the computer-generated background perfectly, with none of the familiar guesswork.
Veescope Live does standard chroma green by default, but you can set it to blue or any other color via the standard Apple color picker. You can also bring QuickTime files directly into Live to experiment with keying.
To top it all off, Live also has Vector and Waveform scopes and Zebra bars (high, low, and adjustable) as an overlay to your live video feed in real time. All three of these overlays have plenty of adjustments to make them very useful. You can adjust the brightness of the overlays, the density of data in the scopes, and more.
The interface is really easy to use. A series of five tabs below the video will bring up the various functions, each with its own set of adjustments. Resizing the Live window on your Mac's monitor works just like using QuickTime Player.
All in all, Veescope Live's functionality-to-price ratio makes it one of my favorite and most valuable pieces of software. It is, to my knowledge, the lowest-price product of its kind with this much functionality available on the market today.
Veescope Hub (Figure 2. below) is a simple application that performs a very simple task, and I'm amazed that Apple itself hasn't developed this functionality for QuickTime Pro. The best way to explain Hub is to describe how it benefits my own workflow. There are times where I find myself with a collection of short video files I've created. They're all either DVCPro HD 720p30, or NTSC-DV QuickTime files. I've worked these up for a few clients in a day, and I have to get them all onto the clients' various websites quickly. Other times I'm faced with the same problem when I need to upload tutorials or review copies for clients to authorize. Of course, I can go through Compressor, but if what I need is simple, Compressor is just too much work to get something as simple as what I need.
I used to open up all the files in QuickTime Pro and export each according to my standard H.264 settings. The nice part of this approach is that while one is transcoding, I can close its window, move to the next file, start another transcode, and repeat this process until all my files are being transcoded. The drawback is that there's no preset functionality in QuickTime's Export function. And even if there was, I'd have to initiate the transcode process for each video individually. I've gotten pretty fast with this workflow, such as it is, and it now comes easily to me, but I'd much rather have something simpler to automate the process.
Veescope Hub solves all my problems. In Hub, I can create my own presets, drag and drop all my DVCPro HD clips into its window, select the preset I want, and my multiple transcodes are off and running. I finally have the two functions I'd wished QuickTime Pro had all along: presets and batch export. I don't even have to launch QuickTime Player. I just launch Hub and go to town. I can even play video files in a window for verification.
At present I have four presets I've created that I use weekly. Hub is a great timesaver. It's much faster, easier, and less complicated than using Compressor. Compressor has Droplets, but to use them I have to keep all those different Droplets on my desktop or in a folder. Compressor has its place, but it can be too bulky and complex for simple transcodes such as the ones I'm describing. Hub is one icon in my dock-clean, easy, and efficient. The interface is extremely simple. The learning curve for Hub is almost nonexistent, but the documentation it comes with is well-done (as is the documentation that comes with all Veescope products).
The best part about Hub is that it's free. Yes, it's a free application! You can't beat free, especially for such elegance and simplicity. Why Apple didn't create this application a long time ago is beyond me.
Next up is the first of the FCP plug-ins, Veescope Key. As the name indicates, Veescope Key is a chromakey filter package. It consists of four different filters: Brightness Zebras, Chroma Key, Edges, and Softlyght Key. There is one member of my southeast Louisiana FCP user group who does keys that have always impressed me. I was surprised to find out recently that he uses only Veescope Key to do the majority of his key work.
But before we get into the wonders of Veescope Key, it bears repeating that the first rule of chromakey work is "Light the shot properly." If you can do a decent job of lighting your key shot on-set, then keying in post is actually pretty easy.
The controls in the Veescope Key's Chroma Key filter (Figure 3a, below) are very close to the keying controls in Live. So if you get your shot figured out on-set with Live, doing the real key in FCP with the Veescope Key filter should make life really easy. Plus there is a Despill setting in the filter too. It's not Shake or Motion, and it's not the same keyer you get with other third-party solutions, but for only $39 you can't beat it. You'll be amazed at what a great keyer it is for such a low price.
The Brightness Zebras filter (Figure 3b, below) features controls to set separate colors for high and low stripes, line width, threshold high and low, and color space (RGB, SD, HD). It also mixes the original with the filter. Why a filter for Zebras? It's great once you use it! I can turn my Zebras on and off by clicking the Enable check box in the Filter tab, and I have great control over my Zebras. And it's nice to see your Zebras responding during playback.
Edges (Figure 3c, below is an edge cleanup filter designed for use with Chroma Key and Softlyght Key. The controls include Erode Blur, Erode Gain, Erode Clamp, Blur, Gain, Clamp, and Mix. It responds very nicely, and all variables are keyframable (as they are on all the filters in this package), which makes it really helpful for those tricky moving keys that didn't shoot quite as perfectly as you had hoped.
Softlyght Key (Figure 3d, below) is similar to Chroma Key, but with slightly different controls. It's a key filter that adds a bit of softness that can make or break a key. There aren't as many controls, but the softening effect can make a huge difference on the proper video clip. Remember the guy from my user group I mentioned earlier? He told me that this was his favorite key filter of all. If you use this package to key, I'd advise trying out both the Softlyght and Chroma Key filters on each clip and seeing which one works best. I normally throw both on and then turn one or the other off, going back-and-forth until I figure out which one I'm happier with. As with the Chroma Key filter, Soflyght lets you use an eyedropper to pick a color or use the standard Apple color picker to choose your specific key color, with standard chroma green being the default.
The one thing I'd love to see-and I'm not sure if it's even possible, as of this writing-is to have Veescope Live and Veescope Key connect in some way so that if I use Live to get a perfect key, I can bring that shot and the key settings into FCP to simply duplicate the efforts I made in Live. I guess we'll have to wait and see what the future of this software brings.
Veescope Signals (Figure 4, below) is a very handy little filter to have in your arsenal. And at $49, it's another bargain. This filter lets you place monitor signals as an overlay to your video in your Canvas window. You can turn it on and off as needed using the Enable check box in the Filter tab. The various "signals" it can overlay are Waveform, Vectorscope, RGB Parade, Greyscope, and Fleshscope. You're probably familiar with all of these if you've been doing video long enough, although Greyscope and Fleshscopes may be new to some shooters. Greyscope measures luminance, or grayscale. Fleshscope measures specifically along the Flesh Tone line you'd see in a vectorscope.
There are keyframable controls for video brightness, grid brightness, data transparency, data weight adjustment, and mixing the original with the filtered versions of the clip. Why would you need this when you have the scopes in the Tool Bench in FCP? Sometimes it helps to see this data play back in real time as an overlay in your video clip itself. I don't use it in place of the video scopes in FCP; I use it to supplement them.
Since I've gotten this filter, I've actually figured out the necessary image adjustments for some trouble clips I found. Having this information laid over the video enabled me to do so. I've found that the Greyscope and Fleshscope really help to pinpoint and detail my corrections and adjustments in problem clips. When I showed Veescope Signals to my local FCP user group, one member commented that with its keyframable controls it would make an awesome visual effect in the music video he was working on.
Keep in mind that these are diagnostic tools, so when you use them to resolve issues with your clips, be sure to disable or remove the filters before your final render and output. If you do render a clip with this filter added and enabled, it will show up in your final product (as will Veescope Key's Brightness Zebras).
To wrap this all up, I have found all four of these software products to be worth the price, reliable, and high quality. You can pay way more money to get better keyer filters, and you can also get other software monitors with different features at much higher prices. Some of the scopes you'll find in the Veescope tools are already built into FCP but not as overlays (and not all of them).
When I'm doing paid projects, time is money. And these days, my productions are on a smaller budget than they used to be. For what these products deliver for the price, you can't do better. The Veescope line is a great collection of tools for those who need them. And having spoken with the producer of this software, I know there are plans to improve and enhance them in the future.
I also should mention that Veescope's customer support is top-notch, and there are tutorial videos and examples online at the Veescope website that make everything about as crystal clear as can be. Check them out; they'll probably answer just about all of your questions.
Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in New Orleans. Along with training and consulting, he also produces documentaries and educational material, and he designs digital signage systems.