Review: VASST's AVCHD Training feat. Douglas Spotted Eagle
I've recently had the opportunity to review two of the latest training DVDs from VASST.com, a company known for creating DVDs, books, and software utilities that cover a wide variety of video-related topics. In this review I'll look at AVCHD Training, a DVD that carries the following tagline: "Learn the ins and outs of AVCHD and how it affects you." This disc is shot in 16:9 with a running time of 78 minutes. It covers the benefits, challenges-both software- and hardware-related-involved in using AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) and provides useful workflows and workarounds with AVCHD. It's an incredibly deep reference on the current state of this popular new format. Your host is the well-known Douglas Spotted Eagle (aka Spot); imagine if you ran into Spot at a coffee shop, pulled up a chair, and asked, "Tell me everything there is to know about AVCHD!" That's pretty close to what you get with this DVD.
AVCHD Training goes into detail on the capabilities of current mainstream AVCHD camcorders, workflows for AVCHD projects-regardless of your editing software-and, finally, delivery mechanisms. The disc is not specific to any one model of camera, nor is it weighted toward any one NLE. While I personally might like to know more about AVCHD and Vegas (and know that Spot would be the man to teach it), that is not the purpose of this DVD. I did learn things related to Vegas; I also learned things with respect to Avid, Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and EDIUS.
If you're thinking of buying a camera that uses the AVCHD format, this is a great resource to have. You will want to watch this before you buy so that you know how best to build out your HD system of camera, computer hardware, and NLE. If you've already bought an AVCHD camera, knowing more about the AVCHD technology will help you to understand and to get the most out of what you have.
There is a section on the DVD about how AVCHD works; turns out, it works on the weaknesses of the human eye, and Spot equates this to the iPod in the audio world. I'll leave it at that and just say this was a fascinating part of the DVD; it makes clear some of the format's shortcomings, as well as reveals why you need to take some precautions when shooting AVCHD to ensure a great picture. An on-screen comparison of footage of a scene taken using AVCHD and other camera formats looks at the differences between the various formats' color and motion.
Spot readily admits the "Technical Details" section of the AVCHD title is one that you can skip if you just don't want to get this technical. But it's a useful reference to have, whether you're buying or already own equipment that uses this format. In this chapter, you'll find the gory details of Interlaced vs. Progressive, Bit Rates, Main Profile vs. High Profile, and Color Sampling; the details of GOP (Group of Pictures) are also explained in a very clear manner. Spot also gets into the mathematics of HD, if you want to completely geek out. Graphics and lower-thirds are used in this area of the DVD to help deliver the message and to further explain the subjects at hand. I recommend consuming this chapter in small chunks. The graphics used in this section to help explain the sometimes dry, complex concepts are a welcome addition.
As for AVCHD editing workflows, some NLEs such as Vegas and EDIUS support native AVCHD and can be edited directly by dragging files to the timeline. Many of us using these applications have discovered that just because you can do this doesn't mean you should. In today's environment, many users are converting these files to a more edit-friendly codec such as CineForm Neo. Intermediates and workarounds are discussed, and Spot also details how to work with AVCHD on the Apple and Avid platforms by using third-party tools and built-in transcoders. Ingesting with hardware transcoders is also discussed. Screen shots of Final Cut's Log and Transfer function are shown, and the pros and cons are discussed.
He takes a moment and discusses in detail the differences between 4:2:0 and 4:2:2 color sampling and, regardless of the tools you're using, this is valuable information to know.
In the "Output, Delivery, and Archiving" section, you'll find lots of useful information; Spot talks about the possibility of seeing a "soft" image in the NLE during down convert and how to do some detailed testing before adding any type of sharpening. Other things to look for on output include contrast and saturation during the edit and down convert. Outputting to Blu-ray supports either AVCHD or MPEG-2, and Spot discusses both. Information on internet and mobile delivery devices is also included, with specific information for cell phones, Vimeo, YouTube, and Google.
Archiving is critical in file-based workflows, in that you need to be able to reconstruct the cards once they've been shot, backed up, and wiped clean. This is covered in detail, and special tips are given for users of the Apple platform.
If there's one shortcoming to this DVD, it's wordiness. There is a ton of information presented that is related in the soup-to-nuts video production with AVCHD, from shooting with your camera and editing in your NLE to the final delivery of video. Spot presents the DVD in a "talking head" format. Some viewers might benefit with more on-screen graphics, but I think that's a minor complaint compared to the amount of information presented. The main things I really appreciated about the DVD were the depth of material and the way this material was logically laid out. Once you've skimmed the DVD, it's very easy to go back and find what you want to dig into. About the only thing I would have liked to see is exactly how the AVCHD files behaved in all of the popular NLEs. As with so many topics, Spot really knows his stuff, and it shows. If you're using this format, or you think you will in the future, I recommend you go to VASST.com and order this DVD now.
David McKnight (david at mcknightvideo.com) is half of McKnight Video of Houston. He is vice president of the Houston Professional Videographers Association (HPVA), has Sony Vegas and HDV certification, is the technical editor of the forthcoming Vegas Pro 9 Editing Workshop (Focal Press), and is a contributor to TheFullHD Book (VASST). He and his wife, Christie, are winners of multiple HPVA awards.