News From The Woods - March 14,2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published March 14, 2005


"The End of an Era"


Hello all!

Well, it's a sad day in Muddville.

The End of an Era.

For months now I've been putting off the inevitable. The video studio in the past year or so has been getting regular updates as far as hardware, but the Toaster has remained the centerpiece of the operation. All things audio and video have been routed through the studio patch bays. But I knew this day would finally come to pass and Yea and Verily the time is here. I simply HAD to make some changes, and one thing led to another and before you know it I was convinced that there is no other way but to give the video studio a major wiring overhaul. The time had come to put Amiga 4000/Toaster #709725 out to pasture.

I bought my system waaaaaaaaay back in 1992, and added the Flyer software in 1995. I suppose I was one of the first videographers in the region to move to a non-linear editor. One of my best pals, Rick Thomson at Data Grafix in Springfield, Missouri, was saying such great things about this new "Video Toaster" that I took a trip up there to see what all the fuss was about. To demonstrate how simple the operating system was he put me in a room with a running Toaster and gave me half an hour to experiment. No instruction manual, no tutorial aside from "Here is the interface, this is the character generator, here is a folder with audio clips in it, here is a folder with short animations in it, this folder contains transitions and effects, this is where you can find some stills to play with, etc." For instructions he said "Just grab something and throw it up in the project window and hit play." That was it!

Well, in that half an hour I had put together a bogus movie trailer. It had a crude but effective CG title page (multiple font styles on a Key page), thirty seconds of some space animations and movie clips of "Star Wars" that I found, a music bed with cross fades and some sound effects, and I used some Toaster Effects to transition between clips. I was completely and hopelessly hooked. I did not want to get out of that chair. I certainly did not leave is office without getting his assurance that I was slated to receive the very next Toaster shipped to him. And I did get that Toaster two weeks later, and my career as a videographer changed from that very day.

Three years later NewTek announced the Flyer. Up to that point I had been using the Toaster for switching, all my CG work, and doing A/B rolls with my footage. I mastered to ¾" and was as happy as a clam. But the Flyer meant it was now affordable to do all my video editing with the computer. It also meant multiple A/B rolls and fades! Also, by that point, I had become familiar with LightWave, and was sick of having a 5-second, 150 frame "cut off point". It's hard to show a space ship flying past a planet in just 5 seconds, but that's all my RAM could handle for LightWave animations. Plus, my clients were suitably impressed with my new production look and spiffy professional title pages. So I went to the bank and borrowed enough to get me started with a Flyer. Hard drives in those days were worth their weight in gold. Literally. I think my first SCSI A/V drives were something like 2 or 4 Gigabytes each, and they cost around $1,000 each. By the time I bought the Flyer card, a TBC, the software and all I had invested a decent chuck of change. Still, it was only 1/10th of what I would have spent on a comparable analog tape-based system. And I used that system exclusively for ten years!

Occasionally I would have to replace a hard drive (prices got cheaper each time). I discovered the system's minor shortcomings and purchased third party software as a work around. I bought every single software release from ProWave and OzWare. They greatly streamlined the operation and improved the Toaster tool set to make things quicker and easier. A Video Toaster Users Forum was established and as a member I had almost instant contact with others if I needed a problem solved. In most cases, problems were solved using this method within 24 hours of posting the problem. Even NewTek reps would enter in on the threads, making many of the fixes "official". The VTFML was (and still is) wonderful. The Toaster community back then was made up of creative types with a passion for helping out their fellow users. Most of the third party vendors we bought software from were also on the list, and it became even easier to filter helpful feedback to them, which in turn would lead to more refinement in future updates. It was truly a win-win situation.

But things change.

To begin with (and these opinions are solely my own) the video industry at large was pissed. Here was this upstart company from the Midwest spreading heresy and preaching about the New Desktop Revolution which was coming, and for only pennies on the dollar as far as investments were concerned. Several engineers for large broadcast facilities got their hands on systems and hooked them up to scopes in order to derail the myth, and wound up realizing that the NewTek VTASC compression scheme was pretty good after all. Still, the Toaster was being dismissed as a "nice toy" for non-broadcast video people by the world trade press. It was all too easy to point to the Toasters "cheesy" effects (Falling Sheep come to mind) and call it "third rate". Well, nobody said you HAD to use those effects, but the die was cast and for the rest of the Toaster's existence NewTek had to bear the brunt of selling a "wedding videographer's tool". It was no help that the platform this system ran on was an "antiquated Amiga computer" (snicker, snicker… nudge, nudge…wink,wink…). And thanks to an inability to save the Amiga OS - the intellectual properties of Amiga was purchased so many times even those of us following the issue couldn't even keep track - the actual computer model that NewTek developers had chosen was being yanked right out from under them.

Of course all the adverse publicity was unfair but the "legitimate broadcasters" could not very well concede that all their expensive broadcast equipment (NEC switchers, Sony editing gear, Tektronics scopes, Crosspoint Latch sync/black burst generators, DVE's, character generators, Quantel paintboxes, and expensive Harris TBC's) could be replaced by a simple little box sitting on a desktop. They did not have a clue as to the future of the medium.

Indeed, the Revolution HAD begun, and NewTek most definitely fired the first shot.

And they paid dearly for it.

Due to the adverse publicity surrounding their product, sales of Toaster/Flyer units were disappointing. NewTek's LightWave 3D modeling software was paying a lot of the bills as it was accepted by the industry (rightfully so) as one of the foremost modeling programs in the marketplace, which it still is. The NewTek brain trust then released the Calibar, which got some much needed positive press for the company, but they still had to live with the "toymaker" image thrust upon them. Like the Borg, the company began to assimilate one developer after another into the fold, working on plans for a "new toaster". Rumors began to circulate. Aura was soon released for the PC. Then the first Video Toaster for the PC was shown at NAB. Almost before the issue had been addressed by the same "legitimate broadcasters" (again) the VT2 came to pass. Also, by this time, other companies were developing their own non-linear editing systems for the PC (crude as they were), and the stogey Old Guard found that they had bigger fish to fry.

To be fair to NewTek, they really tried to get more of us Amiga users to make the move. Many of us (me included) resisted, but as we now know, resistance is futile. I saw the handwriting on the wall when I saw Aura released as a PC-only product. But at least they included a codec in the original software issue that would allow you to load and save a Flyer Clip in Aura. All you had to do was figure out how to get data back and forth from the Amiga to the PC. I used 100M Zip drives. By Y2K I was still using the Flyer for 100% of my video work, but was doing all my LightWave animations on the much faster PC, and was fiddling with Aura for some composite graphic applications. For several years I had been commissioned to write articles about the Flyer for the various publications that came and went (Video Toaster User, NewTekniques, Newtek Pro), and felt the pressure of being the "Amiga throwback" in the writer gene pool. The VT2 was getting the Big Push and here I was, still using an Amiga. However, I WAS using a PC as well for other chores, and many of the related applications still applied to readers, so I was asked to continue writing. I did "how to" articles that applied to video production in general, and wrote many articles on recording audio, which is my specialty. I reviewed software products for the PC. I did reviews of Sony's (then Sonic Foundry) ACID audio sequencing software. I reviewed Soundprobe, a great audio editing program. And all the while I kept my eye on the further development of the "PC/VT".

I had several opportunities to have hands on with the VT2 and frankly I was not impressed. I felt that NewTek was trying to cater to too wide of a user base. In the process the Toaster's operating environment was becoming less and less user friendly. Some of the operations were downright clunky. I feel (again this is my own opinion) that the developers were losing sight of the main reason that the original Toaster was so revolutionary…. It was easy to use! Sure, this new system was easy to them, but then they are educated in this new computer technology and the average videographer is more concerned with style, composition, and quality than in streaming codecs, confusing interfaces, and software with a large learning curve. Who has time to learn a complete new way to edit on a computer when we should be out making money? The original Toaster was easy enough for anyone to understand at the basic level. It took NO TIME to learn how to use it. It's a shame that the NewTek engineers did not realize this in time or they might have been able to release a VT2 LITE for basic users and then develop an expanded software version for the advanced user who might even need or use the "extra's".

Hindsight is always 20/20.

In any event, I expanded to a second computer in the meantime, and I was getting interested in Sony's Vegas Video editing system. The interface on Vegas is very simple (similar to the original Toaster). The new computer had Premiere Pro installed on it and I really did my best to grasp the OS. However, after going through two of the three tutorial DVD's I was issued, it became apparent to me that this software was more like the VT2/3. It was trying to be everything for everybody………. Too many choices. I got mired down in redundant data and multiple ways of doing things and got discouraged. Besides, I am still working here and I needed something to get work out the door beside the Amiga. I got Vegas Video 4.0 and loved it from the first moment I spent with it! It was almost like my very first love affair with the original Toaster. It was (and is) EASY to use. I soon whipped video projects out the door faster than I could with my Toaster and they looked so much better. The CG is easy and powerful. Burning DVD's of projects is a no-brainer using Sony's DVD Creator. The higher clock speed of the PC has enabled such "impossible to do before" effects like SloMo and fast motion effects in REAL TIME. And don't even mention Chroma Key! It's MY kind of video editing software.

I have since added yet another computer to the arsenal. This one is a 3.0GHz notebook that will do about as much as my one year old Dual Xeon 3.0GHz video workstation, AND it is portable. Last winter the family vacationed in Florida. All I took was my H/P notebook with Vegas 5.0, ACID 4.0, PhotoShop 6.5, and LightWave 6.0 on it. A large part of my regular video work these days is producing Video Memorial Tribute DVD's for a chain of funeral homes. It involves still pictures, music soundtracks, some video clips, an animation or two, and CG title pages. While in Florida I continued to do this everyday work as easily as at home. I sat by the pool and downloaded the still pictures from the funeral homes via WiFi wireless Internet connection. Then I prepared the video project on the notebook using templates I had created earlier in Vegas. When completed I took the notebook to my room, plugged in the AC, and rendered the project and burned it to DVD. In ten minutes I drove to the nearest UPS pickup station (2 miles from the beach motel) and sent the package overnight to Arkansas. I did 12 of these projects in a single week and didn't miss half an hour of quality time watching my son swim in the pool. Heck, I just about paid for my entire week in Florida on those projects alone!

Since my return to Arkansas I am now contemplating adding a ProTools audio recording engine to my notebook. I am about to purchase a Digidesign Mbox audio pre amp (two professional Focusrite audio pre amps in a small box with USB 2.0 connection) which comes bundled with ProTools LE software. It will give me 24 tracks of professional audio, which will enable me to go on location and record a live band (stereo mix from PA) while simultaneously capturing multiple camera angles onto MiniDV camcorders for later digitizing through Firewire and editing in the notebook…. ALL on location. I could edit it all down and give the band a finished professional DVD of their gig that night if I wanted to. I just added a 120-Gig 7200 RPM A/V external hard drive that plugs into any of my computers through USB. I bought it at Wal Mart for $150.

We've come a long way, baby !!!

But the point here is that I could not have gotten to this place without that first purchase of the original Toaster way back in 1992. THAT was the first shot fired in the desktop revolution, and I was on the front line. Those engineers and developers of the original Toaster saw it coming and I went along for the ride. Nowadays, everyone is scrambling in this new workplace for superiority. There are many computer video editing software companies, each catering to a slightly different application or user. I really wish I could have gone with the PC version of the VT, but it just wasn't for me personally. I chose Vegas. You might prefer Premiere Pro, the AVID Media Composer path, or swear by the latest version of the Video Toaster. It really doesn't matter much anymore because there is so much out there. You just have to find what works for you.

My trusty Amiga Toaster is off line now. It is still plugged into the A/V patch system, and it will run when I turn it on (and I even have a back up second Toaster system "for parts"), but I haven't turned it on once in the past week. I doubt if I ever turn it on again, except for perhaps to use the TBC to run some sloppy video through first before digitizing it, or maybe just for old times sake. Someday I hope to power it up when Robert gets old enough to want to "play around" with video. What a great "toy" it will be for him to learn on, like his daddy.

I am thankful to have been smart enough to make that decision long ago when I moved from a tape-based editing system to an NLE. And I thank NewTek for introducing such a new and wonderful device at a time when no one like me could afford to become an independent videographer.

The NewTek Video Toaster: A truly revolutionary device.

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