Blame it on Blair Witch. When a hit summer film revolves around three kids who run around the woods with cameras and don't even use the steadycam setting, it is only going to be a matter of time before something equally weird happens to home movies. The Project was famous for being filmed on a camera bought at (and returned to) Circuit City, edited on a $30,000 shoestring and promoted like hell on the Internet. This holiday season, however, millions of wannabes can go through exactly the same process for less than $3,000--cast party not included.
Digital-video (DV) camera prices are plummeting south toward the $1,000 border. Cheap DV-ready PCs, bundled with professional-editing software, are zooming off store shelves. And a host of popular production websites have sprung up to showcase amateur movie shorts. All of which has led experts to believe we're in for a DV Christmas. "There's a demand for video editing among consumers if it can be done easily and elegantly," says Kevin Hause, an analyst at International Data Corp. "When you look at what that takes in terms of computer speed and power, we're there."
Of course, Santa isn't going to transform us into little Spielbergs any more than the typewriter created a nation of Fitzgeralds or desktop publishing made our yard-sale flyers look like ads from Madison Avenue. But talent aside, recent advances have made it pretty painless to churn out, say, a half-hour short and give it a global audience inside of a week. If you ever suspected there was a movie inside you, now's your chance to dig it out.
As with all unfamiliar technology, there are a few hurdles you'll have to jump and plenty of chances to get ripped off along the way. First of all, the standard for this medium is a superfast cable called FireWire (geeks know it as IEEE 1394, and Sony folks call it i.Link). Any DV camcorder you unwrap under the tree next week should feature a FireWire output, and any PC you want to use has to include a FireWire input. Most don't, of course, and you'll probably have to upgrade (see box). A major word of warning: FireWire does not work with Windows 95. You could make life a lot easier by purchasing an iMac DV ($1,299).
Apple's machine is, as the name suggests, specifically designed to get you into the digital-movie business. It has two FireWire ports and comes with iMovie--film-editing software so intuitive that it doesn't have a manual, or need one. Learn to crop, clip and swap scenes with the tutorial, plug in the camera and bingo--you're in postproduction. Other editing suites include Adobe Premiere ($895) and top-of-the-line Avid Express ($15,000 and up).
What about the camera? Right now, Canon and Sony have got the DV camcorder market sewed up. Each has a choice of cameras in the high-, medium- and low-price range. Expect to pay up to $4,199 and to get what you pay for. Real professional quality means a camera with three CCDs--that is, three separate prisms to capture red, green and blue light--and a shotgun microphone, like the one boasted by the $2,500 Canon GL-1. But, hey, who said anything about professional quality? This is the Blair Witch era, after all. Grain is chic. Save your pennies with a serviceable Canon Ultura ($1,200) or a Sony Digital8 ($1,000).