Blackmagic delivers

The Intensity Pro from Blackmagic Design features the latest HDMI technology for high quality capture and playback of video on Windows or Mac OS X computers. Giorgio Ungania takes it through its paces.
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission
Giorgio Ungania corporate training and marketing manager of SAE International
Giorgio Ungania corporate training and marketing manager of SAE International

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High Definition has been the buzzword in video production for the last three years with HD cameras, HD cables, HD non-linear editing software and HD DVDs. For every product in the market, someone is busy making an HD version if it's not already available.

Although the HD format is the future and one day, everything from production to transmission will be in HD, we currently work in a mixed environment where we see a majority of Standard Definition productions and just a small percentage being produced in HD and with international technical standards still not completely settled.

I personally adopted HDV video in my production at a very early stage. I still remember the first time I captured and played back HDV on my laptop. I was amazed that I could play back the video on my timeline in real time with no rendering required. The quality was better than any DV I had ever seen, but there was a small problem. My 17" laptop monitor could not display the full 1440X1080 pixels frame size of the signal so I had to monitor it at half or even a quarter of the original frame size.

Monitoring HD has been one of the first challenges for those migrating to the new HD formats. Independent producers without the budget of big production companies and broadcasters have been facing this issue from day one.

Solutions for monitoring HD on CRT displays are usually very expensive and technically limited as they cannot display 1980X1080 full frame signals. The solution to this can be found in any consumer electronics store everywhere in the world: Plasma and LCD consumer monitors.

Even though Plasmas and LCDs display a slightly less wide colour range compared to the CRT, they are all pretty much capable of displaying full frame HD video (depending on model and specifications).

More interestingly, all the latest monitors and TV sets come with a very handy feature that makes the video producer's life much happier - HDMI ports. HDMI is a modern interface replacement for analogue standards such as composite video, S-Video, SCART, component video and VGA, and digital standards such as DVI .

HDMI ports are now implemented in all of the latest camcorders making playback of HD content a breeze if you use a plasma or LCD screen. The true added value of the HDMI standard is that it is truly HD and does not rely on any video compression like the DV or the HDV Firewire-based video standards.

When it comes to video capturing and editing, the story has been different as there were no other options for digital monitor playback other than DVI until Blackmagic Design introduced the first PCI HDMI card on the market.

This is the Intensity Pro - a 64-bit PCI Express card for video capture and playback for both Windows and Apple systems. The Intensity can be purchased in two different configurations, both sporting HDMI but one with also analogue in and outs as well.

The unit is easy to install in the PCI slot. Once its software is installed, the unit is up and running in no time. I installed the interface on a MacPro 8 Cores with 4GB of RAM and tested the card on a project I was just working on. This is a commercial promoting the forthcoming Pink concert in Dubai. As the commercial is meant to be played on TV stations, projected in cinemas and looped on Plasma screens in stores, I decided to produce it in 720p and downsize it only for the TV version.

Final Cut was used for editing and Motion for compositing and graphic animations. Switching the video preview from a thumbnail on my computer screen to the HDMI port and outputting a full 1280 X 720 frame size on the connected Sony Plasma was amazing. I could enjoy the colour details and visual impact of HD video even in the editing stage and not only after completing the project. The true benefit of monitoring directly in HD is that you can see your work exactly as it will appear when displayed to the audience.

Interestingly, the HDMI output worked even when I switched to Photoshop, After Effect and Combustion making the HD experience truly enjoyable regardless of the application in use.

I tested the HDMI input connecting a Sony HDR HDV camcorder and capturing some footage I previously recorded on a green screen; capturing was fine and the HDV video was available just as it would be if I had used a firewire connection.

In some ways, the Intensity Pro HDMI input works like a firewire interface when capturing HD material from a tape but there are significant differences. HDMI is an uncompressed video stream so when the camera sends HDV from tape out via HDMI, it decompresses and filters the signal to regain the full 4:2:2 bandwidth. With HDV firewire, the data on tape is simply copied across to the computer drive. One advantage of working with an uncompressed signal source is that the user can then capture in real time to any of Blackmagic's supported codecs. This cannot be done when capturing via HDV firewire.

The true advantage of acquiring HD video using the Blackmagic Intensity Pro is when connecting a camera to the HDMI port and recording the video directly to the computer's disc. This way, it is possible to capture uncompressed HD video signal without using more expensive high-end cameras and decks. However, you do need a high performance computer and fast disc arrays to be able to capture live HD without drops.

Unfortunately, there are still no camcorders in the market with HDMI input ports, so when you need to output your programme out from your NLE, you will still need to use firewire or analogue. This is because HDMI is still a new standard. Also, HDMI only carries audio video signals and no Time Code so if you need to capture both, you will have to connect both the cables while capturing footage.

Blackmagic is shipping its cards with On-Air 2.0, a very handy application that turns computers into a live production studio.

On Air requires at least two Intensity cards installed in the host computer to work. This does not mean that On-Air captures two separate video inputs. It allows the user to preview two video inputs using two Intensity cards but it records only the live mix to the disc. The preview of each input (or camera) will be displayed on the main On-Air window just left from the main programme window.

With On-Air, it is possible to record HD video live direct to disc and operate just as if you were in a broadcast studio gallery. Other than selecting which camera to record, it is possible to create live crossfades, fades to black and even superimpose graphics containing an alpha channel.

Professional live mixers traditionally could not be utilised with prosumer cameras because they could not receive the GenLock signal. On Air includes a frame synchroniser that allows any camera connected to the Intensity Pro card to be mixed live within the application.

On Air is an economical solution for bouquet TV channels, corporate video producers and anybody who needs to create a portable live studio set up.

The Intensity is an extremely useful interface for those producing HD content. Being able to monitor the output of your project in final HD from a monitor is a feature that is hard to give up once it is experienced. Also, the fact that almost all of the main digital editing applications are supported by Blackmagic makes the unit very appealing to a vast range of professionals, and not just video producers. Retouching a 10 megapixel still on Photoshop and monitoring on a 50'' display plasma is a dream for any print graphic designer worldwide.

Pros

Affordable price
Easy installation
On Air software included

Cons
Requires high-end host computer to perform direct to disk HD Capturing

Price: US $380
Local distributor: MediaCast FZ LLC, Dubai

Giorgio Ungania is corporate training and marketing manager of SAE International. He can be reached at giorgio@sae.edu.

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