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DESKTOP-VIDEO MARKET HEATS UP WITH NEW VIDEO TOASTER

Summertime is guest column time. And who better to persuade to do a guest column on desktop video than computer graphics engineer (and son) Jeff Kesselman? Jeff says there's excitement brewing in the field.

For the past several years, computer hardware and software makers trumpeted Desktop Video. After I cut through the hoopla, most programs were just the same old drawing and painting packages, spiffed up with a handful of screen-changers such as fades, dissolves and wipes, and a sequencer to call pictures up one at a time for editing.I needed something that could produce simple, professional-looking presentations. I didn't expect the output to look like videos made with a $30,000 budget. But I did want one I could show my friends and maybe even show on community TV to advertise my services.

So I held my dollars until desktop video could compare in sophistication to desktop publishing.

Now, amazingly, hardware and software manufacturers are finally turning into reality the phantom created by their marketing staffs. Desktop Video is here! One of the first and most exciting new products goes by the unlikely name Video Toaster. Made by New-Tek, it's a program combined with a set of circuit boards that plugs into a Commodore Amiga. Currently only available for the Amiga 2000 series, it combines the functions of five separate television studio production devices.

The Toaster is, first of all, an excellent digital special effects generator (SEG in studio lingo). Know how the big boys get those fancy effects where screens seem to shrink, warp, and fly off into space? You'll be able to do it all, too.

Ever watch a TV weather forecaster from the studio? He's motioning at a plain wall painted off-blue, purple or some other strange color. Those big moving cloud patterns and radar blips behind him are generated inside the studio SEG.The SEG replaces everything matching that strange color with moving pictures coming from a second camera or video deck. It "cuts out" everything that colors and pastes the second image on that space.

Today studios "color key" images. Before, they used "contrast keying." It cut out everything below a certain brightness. Standing a light-colored suit against a black background, they could make the wall disappear, leaving the person whole - though black hair sometimes vanished along with the wall.

The Video Toaster's built-in contrast keying lets you combine two shots in one frame. The Toaster also lets you combine any video image you make with photos or a digital disk. Using its Character Generator or the Paint Box, you can add titles to your movies.

Character Generators (CG - studio people love acronyms) are simply word processors that come with multiple sizes of type and several type faces. Some also create effects like colored or flashing text. The Toaster's CG does all that. It can also scroll text up, down and across the bottom of the screen.

The Toaster's Paint Box is just a jazzed-up version of New-Tek's Digi-Paint. It generates studio quality 24-bit color images. After you use the Toaster to capture incoming black-and-white video to a file, you can add colors on any screen with the paint program.

The Video Toaster's Chroma Effects feature is fun, too. It lets you change any color on your video images. Since it creates new color values based not on the old color of a dot (Chroma, in video talk) but its intensity (luminance), a variety of freaky effects are possible. (I'm still trying to find a way to get it to remove all colors but one!) A three-dimensional animation package also comes with the Toaster. Its model-building section leaves something to be desired. But its animator is very easy to use and the frame creation (rendering) speed is fast enough for real studio use.

It took me a little over a minute to make a simple fly-by of a floppy disk that lasts 30 seconds. This "two-to one" ratio, as animators say, is excellent. It's much faster than any animation package I tested and reported on here a year ago.

The Toaster doesn't have the fancy correction hardware of professional SEGs, so effects are not as high in quality. When I squash or stretch a picture too much, it tends to break up.

But this is desktop video. It's certainly good enough for internal corporate, high-end home and rock-bottom studio use.

What does this marvel of engineering cost you? If you already own the Amiga, the Toaster's about $1,500. That's not beans, but it's less than the cost of packages marketed to professionals.

If you don't have an Amiga, about $4,000 buys you the Toaster bundled with hardware that connects via serial port to an IBM or Macintosh. It contains the Amiga parts it needs, licensed from Commodore - but not all the parts you need to run any other Amiga programs.

Amigas are already being used in studios just for their excellent graphics software. So if you're at all serious about video production, why not buy the whole Amiga? I have some words of caution. The Toaster produces high-quality videos only if the video pictures you send it are high in quality. Most home videotape recorders can't generate high enough quality. You must first run the videos through a device called a time-base corrector to clean it up. (This doesn't mean the images you see will be any sharper or clearer, just that the signal carrying those images is more correct.) Some 8mm and expensive VHS decks have TBCs built in. Your manual will tell you if yours does.