When I was a kid—you know, back in the day—my parents had an 8-mm movie camera. Not Super 8, mind you. Just regular ol’ 8. Thus consigning me to a life in which I did not create Alias, Lost, or direct Star Trek. On the plus side, I also didn’t create Felicity, so there’s that. The 8-mm camera shot on 25-foot rolls of film just to confuse the metrically challenged among us even more. Each reel lasted about three minutes, although you could always squeeze a few extra frames of hijinks onto the tail end. My dad almost exclusively shot outside, as the tri-bulb Light of Ra needed to expose the film properly indoors only made "the talent" scurry for cover like Nosferatu.
Once developed, these 8-mm films—or shorts if you’re a hipster doofus—were just a knee-slappin’ hoot to watch projected on our living room wall. Compared to today’s home theater gear, I estimate the project pumped out a cool 18 lumens. And I do mean cool, as a 19-lumen light bulb would’ve caused spontaneous celluloid combustion and loss of my brother’s Backwards is Beautiful Cub Scout film. I was going to explain what it was about, but I suspect your own interpretations are funnier. But for all these films lacked—sound, color fidelity, non-linear editing systems, Chewbacca—they did avoid one thing that has become a bit of a bane to the modern digital camcorder: video noise.
Now, film itself is rarely crystal-clear and free from visual defects—a post-Under Siege Steven Seagal bloatedly springs to mind. But film’s version of noise is called grain. Even at its most egregious, film grain comes off as artsy. Video noise is just, you guessed it, fartsy. Video noise is the result of a couple of things: high ISO settings combined with sensors that can’t really handle said settings, and compression artifacts. Do things just wrong, and you can end up with a shot that looks like a 4-bit animated GIF, only without the funny hamsters.
While technology continues to wage war against video noise (my new Panasonic DMC-GH2 is light-years ahead of my old Panny DVX-100a), the laws of photographic physics still apply, and getting a nicely exposed shot with a minimum of funk can still be challenging. Especially when shooting on auto mode, which most consumers undoubtedly do.
Until very recently, I had be using a Canon Vixia HF200 camcorder to film my offspring’s most precious screamings. The HF200 was pretty swanky when I acquired it just before our youngest was born in November 2009. It shot 1080p at 24 FPS (my preferred frame rate) onto SD cards. No more digitizing MiniDV tapes from the DVX or Canon HV-20. Just copy the files and, um, wait for VoltaicHD to transcode the AVCHD into ProRes. But, like all cameras, the HF200 preferred more light to less, which was hard to achieve at 6 AM Christmas morning without disrupting the holiday vibe. Noise still ensued.
Now, most people would just live with the noise, cut their little video piece together for grandma and call it a day. These people are onto something. I, however, am just on something. The search for a good noise reduction plug-in for Final Cut Pro began. And by "good" I mean "good and cheapish." It’s easy to throw pro bucks at pro solutions. I may have Final Cut Studio, but I’m not exactly Thelma Schoonmaker over here. I needed to make some very noisy shots only mildly obnoxious and do so on a budget.
And then I found Neat Video—a company with a noise reduction plug-in as awesome as their website is not (hello, 1996!). Technically, Neat Video uses a lot of math and CPU cycles to make your shots look like you almost know what you’re doing if the poor composition and lack of a compelling narrative didn’t give you away. The plug-in is incredibly easy to use. There’s a lot of tweaking you can do, but for once, the auto setting usually works just as well as anything you can figure out. You do need to do it on a clip-by-clip basis as Neat Video literally samples the noise in each shot to build a map of grunge to nuke.
Granted, I did have to pop for the Pro version, which costs $99. Considering even cell phones shoot in HD now, I’m not sure who’s going to buy the 720p-and-under Home version. But having used it for almost a year now, I must say it was a worthwhile investment. Which is more than I can say for my three shares of Zynga stock.
To illustrate the niftiness of Neat Video, I’ve uploaded a truly horrific (noise-wise) clip of my son Simon from late 2010. His mom (my wife, Megan Fox) was tickling him before putting him down for a nap. The room was dark, with only two, dimmed 40-watt bulbs on overhead. The HF200 obviously cranked up the ISO as high as possible and let the noise fall where it may. The processed video isn’t perfect, but it is highly usable. To see more shots, you can watch and cry and awwww over our 2010 family video, which has Neat Video applied to every shot. Watch them full-screen to see the effects better.
I’ve just started editing the Fox Family 2011 Year-in-Review saga. And I’ll be slapping Neat Video on every shot in it, as well. For 2012, I’ve upgraded to the previously referenced Panasonic DMC-GH2, which somehow makes its noise feel a bit more like film grain. I’ve already passed a couple of clips from it through Neat Video, and it looks even better, as one would hope.
So, if you shoot stuff that you actually want to show other people, give Neat Video a look. I can’t promise it’ll turn you into the next J.J. Abrams. But you will probably end up better than the guy who directed this.