With the right tools, motorhome travelers can produce their own high-quality home movies.
By Jim Brightly
Many motorhomers already rely on portable computers to find information on the Internet, send e-mail messages to friends and family, and run navigation and mapping software while on the road. With the right setup and software, that small computer can do so much more. Among the numerous possibilities, you can manage your finances; play games; organize, retouch, and e-mail your digital photos; and watch full-length movies.
But did you ever imagine using your computer and a camcorder to create high-quality home movies with background music, voice-over commentary, titles, and all the other editing tricks that can be seen “” or removed “” in real production films? With the merging of computer and video technology, it’s now possible to produce your own travel features while on the road, which then can be shared with friends and family on a DVD or a CD. And the entire package “” camcorder, computer, and software “” can be had for under $2,000; less than that if you already have one or more of the components.
To begin your moviemaking endeavor you’ll need a camcorder. With so many video cameras available, it would be impossible to cover even a tenth of them. Instead, here are the features and capabilities you should look for when you head out to purchase a new camcorder.
Nearly every camcorder I researched while collecting background information for this article offered both optical and digital zoom lenses “” some of them having 600x or more digital zoom capability. With a 600x digital zoom you could probably watch someone walking around on the moon, if you could hold the camcorder steady enough. And therein lies the problem with using high digital zoom: it’s nearly impossible to hold the camcorder steady enough for meaningful recording. You’d have to use an extremely sturdy tripod to record images that could be viewed, even with image stabilization (which is one feature you will need). For this reason, I suggest that you don’t concern yourself with how much digital zoom power the camcorder offers, but make sure it has at least a 16x to 20x optical zoom lens.
The image stabilization feature removes much of the shake and shimmy associated with handheld video recording. It won’t remove the quick-pan blur (sweeping the camera from side to side too fast) but will do a great deal toward reducing the camera shake everyone experiences when manually using a camcorder. (The movie editing software covered later in this article also has an image stabilization analog built into it, but you’ll want as much stabilizing influence as you can get unless you want to lug a tripod around with you.)
You’ll also need to find out what type of data port the camcorder has. This port is used to transfer the recording from the camcorder to the computer. A camcorder may have a USB port; a FireWire connection; an S-video port; or a multi-pin PC port. Make sure you ask the salesperson about this, because it’s important. Some of the latest camcorders offer removable memory sticks, memory cards, CDs, etc. that may make it even easier to transfer your movies to the computer.
You also should consider purchasing another camcorder battery. Most camcorders come with a minimum-size battery that will allow you to record for 30 to 60 minutes, but this might not be enough power to take you through an entire day of sight-seeing. Purchase a second battery that’s rated for at least twice the time as the original. That way, you can use the larger battery as your main power source and keep the original as a backup.
Another accessory you will need is a camera case with a shoulder strap. Make sure the case has enough room for the camcorder, a spare battery, and several extra tapes. Always keep your camcorder’s owners manual in the case. You never know when you might need troubleshooting advice, and you may want to experiment with some of the camera’s other functions just for fun. If your camcorder has an external battery charger (most of them have the charging circuit in the camcorder itself), you’ll want to carry it with you, as well as the camcorder’s AC power cord.
Most new camcorder models come with various bells and whistles, such as digital wipe, fade in/fade out, special effects, etc. Until you become acquainted with the general operation of the camcorder, you probably won’t use these features “” other than during the initial experimentation phase “” for a year or so. As you get more into moviemaking, you may want to add accessories such as lapel microphones, remote radio mics, extra fill lights, etc., so make sure your camcorder has the capability to utilize these as well.
The price of a good camcorder that has the necessary features to make quality home movies will range between $400 and $800. However, once you see how easy it is to edit and make your own travelogues, you may want to pick up a less expensive camcorder that is smaller, lighter, less complicated, and easier to take with you while bike riding (maybe even fastening it to the handlebars for a different point of view), fishing, hiking, etc.
The next piece of equipment you’ll need is a computer. Many motorhomers opt to carry laptop computers when they travel, but I found an alternative that seems tailor-made for travel and is less expensive. The Monarch Traveler is said to be the world’s smallest DC-powered desktop personal computer. This small but powerful desktop PC operates on 12-volt-DC power (it also comes with a 120-volt-AC adapter for use in the home) so you can use it to run your navigation software, keep up with your e-mail (work off-line while traveling and then send and receive once you’re in camp), write letters, maintain your travel journal, and even watch a DVD movie.
I had the pleasure of testing a Traveler while vacationing on the East Coast this past summer with my four grandchildren prior to attending FMCA’s summer international convention in Buffalo, New York. The Traveler is approximately the same size as a typical laptop (but lighter, because it doesn’t contain the monitor and keyboard) and can be connected to either a computer monitor or a full-size television. It measures 11-1/2 inches by 10-3/4 inches; is 2-1/2 inches thick; and weighs just seven pounds. The Traveler line is designed for simple implementation in all types of vehicles and can be used as an MP3 player, a DVD player, a gaming console, a CD burner, part of a GPS system, and as a TV capture and video editing station for any motorhome, boat, or car.
The Monarch Traveler features a 1-gigahertz processor (Cyrix Via-Nehemiah); 256 megabytes of RAM; a 40-gigabyte hard drive; a combination CD-RW and DVD drive; a floppy disk drive; four USB ports; a FireWire port; an SVGA port (for monitor); a composite video out port (for TV); and a 10/100 Ethernet network interface port. The system I tested also had an optional $69 DC Travel package that included two DC power adapters and a Y power adapter; an audio Y cable to adapt the system to RCA composite connectors; an ATI Remote Wonder RF remote control; a mini-keyboard with touch pad; a 15-inch LCD flat-panel monitor; and Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition operating system.
In addition to the above, I added a DeLorme Earthmate GPS antenna and Street Atlas USA 2004 to find my way to restaurants, fuel stations, and campgrounds (see accompanying sidebar). For my convenience, I also used a Logitech cordless keyboard and mouse.
The Traveler was as easy to use and set up as a laptop computer. Its speed, the wide-screen monitor, and its ability to connect to the onboard televisions were definite pluses. The Traveler didn’t include a DVD writer, but I was able to burn a CD (copy files from the computer’s hard drive to a CD). The Traveler is not sold in stores, but is available from Monarch Computer Systems by visiting the company’s Web site, www.monarchcomputer.com, or by calling (800) 611-0875. The Monarch Traveler 1000 System starts at $549.
With a camcorder and computer, you’re two-thirds of the way to becoming your own mobile movie mogul. All that’s left is the software that will put it all together. For my first dive into home video editing I chose the MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 2004 for a relatively inexpensive price of $99.99. MAGIX also offers the less expensive and less sophisticated Movies On CD & DVD ($39.99) editing program, for those who just want to dip in their toes.
Folks who remember trying to splice Super 8mm film together while attempting to keep some continuity between every three-minute roll will be amazed at what they’re able to do with the Movie Edit Pro 2004 program. You also can say goodbye to shaky, herky-jerky video where everything you’ve taped on a trip is just re-recorded all together into one tape, regardless of continuity, location, brightness, etc.
The program’s most basic features allow you to download digital video files from your camcorder to store in the computer. Depending on the size of your computer’s hard drive, you can transfer each day’s video footage into your computer so that you can record tomorrow’s sights and sounds on the same tape. Each morning you start fresh, knowing that all of yesterday’s memories are safe and sound in their computer cache.
The program also makes it easy to transfer your video to DVD (you’ll need a DVD burner) or CD. With a DVD burner, you’ll be able to copy approximately two hours of video to a DVD, which can then be played on a computer or DVD player using a full-screen TV. Once you’re finished editing, copying a two-hour film will take approximately 30 minutes. If your computer is equipped with a CD burner, you’ll be able to copy only approximately 20 minutes of completed video. The amount of completed video you can copy is somewhat determined by the subject matter. If you’re recording video at the Statue of Liberty or Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll have a longer running film than one shot during a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon or a Maid of the Mist ride at Niagara Falls. The more action you have in your film, the more storage space it will require; that’s how memory compression works.
MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 2004 is much more than just a storage and recording program. How would you like to add background music, voice-over commentary, and even sound effects? Have you thought about adding digitized still pictures “” for title screens, transition shots, end scenes “” to your travel documentaries? Want to have a movie within a movie using blue-screen technology like the big-time directors do?
Well, you can do all this and more with Movie Edit Pro 2004, and there won’t be any video quality degradation as there is when you copy one tape onto another. In fact, you’ll actually be able to enhance the picture quality. What you see on your monitor is what you’ll see on your TV. And you’ll be able to mail the DVDs or CDs to family and friends.
MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 2004 was developed with the first-time user in mind and offers easy-to-use drag-and-drop functionality and premium features previously found only in professional video editors. Image restoration, motion stabilizing, compositing, and a variety of preset effects and transitions may be applied and immediately viewed on-screen or removed without affecting the original file.
The software enables users to record TV programs to the computer using the programmable timer (TV card required), make precise cuts, select from a wide variety of transition effects, and even create a custom soundtrack. The special effects templates and inventive 3D transitions give a professional polish to home movies. In addition to split screen and virtual camera panning effects, you can get even more creative with the Hollywood-style blue-screen effect that creates a composite movie from two separate movies. Your soundtracks can be edited and enhanced with voice-overs, songs, and audio effects that add atmosphere to any scene. You even can add rolling credits via the title editor to finish your home movie project with style.
The software supports Video CD, Super-Video CD, DVD, and mini-DVD format copying, depending on your computer’s capabilities, and the software is able to import from a variety of formats as well. It also will burn re-editable project backups and auto-play CD-ROMs, which will simplify project archiving and sharing. And if you really get the creative juices flowing on a long trip, the disc-spanning feature enables you to burn longer projects across several discs.
The MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 2004 for Windows is available for $99.99 (a special rebate offer is available for users of competitive products). Visit www.magix.com or call (888) 866-2449 for more information.
As I promised, moviemaking for under $2,000: camcorder ($400-$800); Monarch Traveler (starts at $585, but will probably run closer to $1,000 with extras); and MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 2004 ($100). And you may even have a few hundred dollars left to buy tapes and discs.
DeLorme’s New GPS And Navigation Software
Just before we left on our cross-country journey, the new DeLorme Earthmate GPS receiver (actually smaller than a business card) became available, so we also gave it a try. If you already have an onboard computer, the Earthmate gives you an alternative to in-vehicle navigation systems that average approximately $2,000. The combination of the Earthmate GPS receiver and the DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2004 mapping software, connected to a USB port on either a laptop or a desktop computer, enables you to see your exact location on detailed street-level maps anywhere in United States. The Earthmate GPS receiver draws power from the USB port on your PC, so no batteries are required.
The Street Atlas USA 2004 software contains new map colors and fonts that enhance map readability. New features include Canadian primary and secondary roads and routing; faster routing with stricter adherence to user-defined road preference settings; new forward-only-looking GPS radar search to help find nearby restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, banks, and 4 million places of interest (according to DeLorme); and JPEG map files that can be e-mailed to family and friends.
The Street Atlas USA 2004 software is available at computer retail stores or directly from DeLorme. The suggested retail price of the Street Atlas USA 2004 software is $49.95; the combination of the Earthmate GPS receiver and the DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2004 mapping software is $129.95. Street Atlas USA 2004 runs on Microsoft Windows 98/2000/Me/XP and Windows NT 4.0 operating systems. Motorhomers can purchase directly from DeLorme at www.delorme.com or by calling (800) 561-5095