March 4, 2001
The Digital Media Training Series
production of Video Compression
with CLEANER 5
presented by Magnet Media...
Soup to Nuts Instruction
Review by Charles Roberts
The "Digital Media Training: Video Compression with Cleaner 5" Instructional VHS/DVD series was produced by Magnet Media. It is available as a four VHS tape set or one DVD that retails at $195. In addition, sample media used in the series is available for download at their website. The tape lengths vary depending on the subject matter, but the total running length of the material is around 3 hours and 4 minutes and covers beginner through advanced level material.
I'm pretty skeptical of any VHS training tape series for a few reasons. They are usually very expensive and far too specific to software versions so that they become obsolete quickly after being purchased. For people or institutions that really need the visual instruction, this may be a great idea, but when the instructional tapes cost as much as the application itself, you've really got to worry that you are investing money in a mortal coil with one foot astride the grave. But before I completely scare you away from instructional tapes, let me introduce you to Digital Media Training: Video Compression with Cleaner 5. For once, an instructional tape series pleasantly surprised me. This set of videos actually overcomes many of these stumbling blocks and delivers well organized information in a manner which could benefit a range of user experience levels. The production quality is consistently high, and the editing is quite good. Although the host seems fairly nervous with the camera and isn't winning any Academy Awards for acting, he seems confident and in command of the material he is covering, as well as the Macintosh platform. (believe it or not, this is becoming a rarity, even in applications like Cleaner 5 that originated on my platform of choice). After a second viewing and only an eight-hour time investment, I feel like I have internalized the knowledge equivalent to a whole week of classroom training.
Let's go through the package. The series comes with the 4 VHS tapes or one DVD, some downloadable demo media that you can experiment with based on the example project in the video, and a short pamphlet containing some relevant information and statistics about issues covered in the videos. The optional distribution on DVD format is a feature I'd love to see replicated elsewhere in the training tape world, definitely a plus in quality and shelf life. The tapes themselves are labeled vaguely on the outside, but are meant to be viewed in order so that information on each tape stays contextual and generally different concepts are not presented in a confusing manner.
Having had access to both the VHS and DVD copies of this series, I have to say that there is absolutely no reason in this day and age for the consumer to purchase VHS tapes. My strongest recommendation for consumers interested in this product is to buy a DVD player for a couple of hundred bucks and then get the DVD. The DVD isn't really 'authored' and doesn't offer a lot of the navigation and support extras we have come to expect from DVD's. However, the component quality of the digital video and the ability to pause a frame and ACTUALLY READ THE TEXT ON THE FRAME should be argument enough for even the most miserly of viewers. The series costs 200 bucks; do you really want to see video dropouts on the tape?
Another recommendation I have is for producers of instructional tapes. Never ever distribute another series on VHS, or at the very least, never offer only VHS. And IMMEDIATELY consider re-mastering and distributing your previous series' on DVD. The difference is that great. There is no reason to produce low quality tapes in the age of DVD. It doesn't matter how large the installed base of VHS players is. Video editors generally look for quality and VHS tapes are not a good source for that.
Next, before beginning the series, be sure to visit www.digitalmediatraining.com and download the tutorial file they have made available for use with the series. The demo material is a whopping 35 meg file. Unless you have access to a T1 or DSL connection, this translates into an enormous download time, which for dial up modem people is nerve-wracking. It's that enormous because the Video Compression with CLEANER folks want you to experiment with the compression issues involved in preparing media from DV source material. Magnet Media has stated that they plan to distribute the series packaged with the media, but as this is not yet available, find yourself a buddy with a fast web connection and get the file that way.
Pop the first tape or the DVD in, load up Cleaner 5 and the demo footage on your Mac, hit play and you are off.
One of the first compliments I have to give these guys is in regards to their holistic approach to compression and production. The Media Cleaner EZ and Cleaner 5 manuals themselves are great guides to compression in conjunction with the explanation of the application interface. Similarly, the video series takes pains to step outside the interface of the application and give good solid advice on preparing media for use in Cleaner 5. Much time is spent instructing the viewer on what compression actually is and how to optimize video material while shooting in order to produce better results inside Cleaner 5. There are no illusions here, and our instructors explain in detail that the GIGO principle (garbage in-garbage out) applies to video and Cleaner 5. Even better, they give quick easy-to-remember tips on avoiding such problems before they become problems.
Also, as with the manuals, the instructors go in-depth into the subject of compression, explaining how Cleaner 5 and codecs do their jobs. They chose excellent example footage that really stresses the relevant issues for each codec. They are not satisfied with simply showing the generic menu path to compressed files. They know that the pupil who has no theory will forget everything in about a week. And they dish out the theory, accompanied by practical visual examples and a methodical organization that covers everything in context. Result? You learn without realizing you have done so, and you donŐt forget it quickly.
The series is actually relevant for intermediate and advanced users as well as the beginner. Beginners of course will be thrilled by how thoroughly each topic is covered and by the fact that they can march along using the same material on their machine as they watch on the tape. But the great thing is that the tapes contain a lot of very useful information for we who are not new to compression and DV. Although it isn't a course on networking or server integration by any stretch of the imagination, it is a decent brief introduction to streaming functionality and the usefulness of some of the newer features of the big three architectures: QuickTime, RealVideo and Windows Media.
For instance, although the platform wars of the 90's are pretty much over, there's still a pretty thick divide between Mac and Windows people. Whatever you may think of this divide, its important to know that there are fundamental differences in the way that the two platforms deal with media. This applies not only to the architecture of the digital video (QuickTime, Real or Windows Media Player), but also to the optimizing of digital video for highest quality and standardized playback on either Mac or PC platforms, whether by streaming or traditional progressive download distribution. In point of fact, this is the only tape I've ever seen point out the PROCESSOR difference between platforms, and the fact that megahertz speeds are not a good gauge of performance when contrasting Macs and PCs.
Many of the technologies of Web distribution are developing as we speak, and though I had used Media Cleaner Pro 3.x and 4.x (Cleaner 5's earlier versions), I found that much had changed in the landscape of compression for Web and CDROM distribution. Functionality has been built into the interface of Cleaner to take advantage of new features in each of the architectures. I found myself smiling as I saw the possibilities opened up by new features like Event Streaming and other streaming options. While the theory of compression hasn't radically changed, the functionality of these architectures has, and even the old hand compression experts could quickly pick up and integrate the new features. As usual, the tapes describe these tools using clear examples and clear language.
Cleaner 5 is not presented as being an island, and its interconnectedness with editing applications like Avid, Media 100 and Final Cut Pro is discussed. While the tapes are not seriously sidetracked by this departure, it is at least acknowledged that your media is originating somewhere, possibly from a professional application and probably not one of your choosing. For beginners who as yet do not work with non-linear editing applications, there is a good solid tutorial for utilizing the Moto DV digitizing engine built in to the Cleaner 5 interface, as well as enough theory about DV capture to get them moving.
The editing and postproduction of the tapes is quite good, at least in comparison with other instructional series I have been forced to sit through. The video quality is tolerably high, the screen shot cutaways are clear, well placed and onscreen long enough for you to follow the lead of the instructor. Time was obviously taken in consideration of how the enormous amount of information delivered on the tapes would best be organized to avoid confusion and redundancy. And after a topic has been completed, a text slate lists a quick clear summary of the key points just covered for ease of note taking.
Of course, no review would be complete without a bit of whining over some problems that remain. Despite the enormous amount of relevant information presented, there are moments where vital information could be included that is not. Some of it is quite critical, especially for new users. For instance, it has been common knowledge for some time that the Radius extensions that drive the Moto DV capture interface conflict with the QuickTime Extensions necessary for Final Cut Pro to work properly. We can all hope that this will be resolved one day, resulting in a smiley green world. But in the meantime, Final Cut Pro users have to circulate this information almost surreptitiously. Its inclusion could save some poor dolt a lot of gray hairs one day. There is no hint that the coexistence of Final Cut Pro and Cleaner 5 must be a doctored one and that hint is one I hoped to see.
I would have like to see some remarks about MPEG2 encoding as well. The viewer is tantalized by that word every time the instructor shows us the list of the compression presets, but he never addresses it. Cleaner 5 is not merely a tool for the web designer. Its functionality extends to any realm where compression must occur efficiently and in an organized manner. MPEG2 compression for DVD authoring is without doubt the next avalanche market and the series would have done well to address it in a little more depth than simply explaining the origin of the acronym MPEG.
I've been using Media Cleaner Pro for years and I've only compressed maybe ten movies for the web. The rest went to CDROM, DVD or back to the non-linear editor they came from. Admittedly, in small letters the cover states that the subject of the series is web compression, but in big bold letters it says video compression. Being old and cranky, video for me still first and foremost means television, digital disk and tape. The range of possibilities for DVD and CDROM is not really covered by the series, sadly enough. Apparently aware of this gap, Magnet Media has informed me that a DVD authoring series is in the works. I'll be looking forward to seeing a thorough treatment of DVD and MPEG2 specific issues in that soon-to-come effort. If they cover it in as much detail as they cover web compression, I'll no doubt be satisfied.
Also, I found that frequently, the instructor directs the viewer to consult the Cleaner 5 or other manual for more information. I know that manual. Sending a beginner searching for an item in the glossary could risk never having them make it back. Since we know that the Cleaner 5 manual will not change before the software version does, and that the tape series will be obsolete at that point anyway, it would have been nice to actually have the instructor direct the viewer to the relevant page in the book. Obviously they know that manual quite thoroughly and this would have required little difficulty to manage.
Still, these are fairly gratuitous complaints, provided you are watching the DVD version and you have access to a fast web connection. In general, even without the demo download file, this set is a pretty decent package that displays the functions of Cleaner 5 while actually delivering the theory of how it all works together to produce the results you want. If you are looking for a great introduction to DV, compression, Web and CDROM distribution and good advice for organizing your production resources, this video series could be the answer.
Charles Roberts (AKA Chawla) teaches Digital Video and Audio Production at Fitchburg State College in Fitchburg, MA. He uses his long tedious rendering times to generate content and tackle hard hitting issues on the discussion boards of 2 Pop (www.2-pop.com). His house seems to shrink with every passing day...
copyright © Charles Roberts 2001
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