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April 2002
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Lit Support Goes Digital

By Anthony Paonita

Lit Support Goes Digital THIS MONTH, we look at litigation on a shoestring, using digital images and video. Visual litigation aids have long passed from the esoteric to the everyday. But until fairly recently, getting your stuff into a computer was complicated and kludgy. But with the proliferation of cheap -- and good -- digital cameras and camcorders, it's pretty easy to film accident scenes, scenarios and whatever else you need to convey visually to the other side. Modern computer operating systems make it easy to import images into your computer and manipulate them.

Both Microsoft Corp.'s XP and Apple Computer Inc.'s OS X operating systems have built-in imaging software. Apple, true to its self-image as a cooler-than-thou digital Mecca, goes one further with its nifty iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD software.

One disclaimer: This column tries its best to be objective when it comes to choice of platform. But in this case, for this kind of work, especially video, Apple's Macintosh computers come out of the box with an advantage. And the bundled programs make it easy to accomplish. You can outfit a Windows PC to do video, but it will take some setup time, or discussion with your friendly local computer store, to get it all going. The noble exception is Sony, which sells some desktops and laptops that are ready for digital movie production out of the box.

Still Images Run Deep

Forget about film and scanners. We're all going digital. With sharp lenses and advanced electronic technology, the images you get don't have to be the murky, off-color messes they used to be. Truth be told, almost all of the images in this magazine are produced and/or processed digitally. (Editor Monica Bay shoots with her Olympus Camedia E-10 and Olympus Camedia C 2020 Z digital cameras; assistant editor Richard Peck uses their C 2040 Z.)

Just as location, location, location is important with real estate, with digital images, it's pixel, pixels, pixels. Images are said to be in "megapixels," which means they're huge files that typically are reduced in size to produce clear, sharp pictures. Look for a camera that takes pictures of at least 2 Mbs; prices ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred bucks to thousands.

Any name-brand digital camera (Olympus, Nikon, Sony, Fuji) will be up to the job. The house favorite around this office is Olympus. Look to spend at least $300 for one that will take photos that are sharp enough (and not grainy) to use for your work. (And caveat emptor: Be sure to avoid "gray market" cameras -- see LTN's Feb. issue, "Stumbling into the Gray Market.")

No More Film

"Film" hasn't completely disappeared; it's just changed in form. Even digital cameras have to store images on something. The media used vary, from "SmartMedia" cards, Compact-Flash memory, Sony's memory sticks, and even rewriteable CDs.

With most cameras, you simply plug them into your computer, usually through the USB (Universal Serial Bus) port. Both XP and X will automatically sense that a camera's been plugged in, and both will guide you to a "wizard" (XP) or start up iPhoto (OS X) to bring the pictures onto your hard drive. Or you can buy a "reader" to download the data from the storage media. (We have an in-house debate over downloading: I like downloading right from the camera; Monica swears by the her USB SmartMedia Reader-Writer, which costs about $50 and looks like a Star Trek gadget.)

Once you've got your images into the computer, you might have to manipulate them to make them viewable. But here, you run into a quandary. You'll probably need to crop them, to bring out the important part of the image. At the same time, you don't want to have pictures that are obviously manipulated, because that decreases their value in court. And don't even think of using an image editing program, such as Adobe Photoshop, to doctor an image. Such manipulations undermine your case's credibility. That said, most cameras come with rudimentary image editing software, such as Photoshop Lite.

The Talkies

Things get a little more complicated when you decide to make like George Lucas. In the old days (say, two years ago), to put together a halfway professional-looking video meant a visit to a video production house. But computers make video editing and production possible for the "prosumer."

Here, the OS divide widens. Macs come out of the box with video importing and editing software; many PCs don't. And in this case, Apple's vertical integration and insularity pay off for the user. Here's why: Macs come equipped with the so-called FireWire, or IEEE 1394 port, which transmits data at 40 Mbs per second. So if you're looking for a PC to edit video, at the very least, have a 1394 port put in (if you have to add it, it comes in the form of a PCI card, easily installed.)

Intel has been promoting its own USB2 standard, which actually is slightly faster than IEEE 1394. But the industry has been slow to adopt it, and digital camcorders have thus far shunned USB2. On the other hand, all digital camcorders come with an IEEE 1394 connection. Using that connection, you can control the camcorder from the computer. This is important when you're trying to be selective about what to import. (Those outtakes and portions where you forgot the camera was on, leaving you with stunning footage of the ground, are best left to the digital cutting room floor.) You can hit "play" when you need to and just zoom through the rest.

If your PC's lacking a 1394 port, look for add-ons like ADS Technology's Pyro 1394 card and drive kit. It's about $200, and not only adds the port, but a fast hard drive, too. (This card sometimes comes bundled with software packages like the Windows version of Adobe Premiere.) On the other hand, Sony's VAIO MX desktop computers come ready for video editing, out of the box.

Edit, Don't Manipulate

Once your video is on the hard drive, you have to edit it. The same caveats as above apply. That said, no one wants to sit through endless, and often boring, rough video. So you'll have to find a medium somewhere.

Macs come with the powerful, if simple, iMovie. Sony bundles its own Movie Shaker and Adobe's Premiere LE on the MX. If you're a Mac user, you can graduate to Premiere, or go to Apple's own Final Cut Pro. Both run natively under OS X. XP comes with Movie Maker, but it can only output to a file, readable by the Media Player. If you want to produce tapes, you'll have to pop for something else.

It may all sound a little daunting, but most of the pain is concentrated on the setup.

After that, there's a learning curve. To produce competent results isn't that big a deal, but you'll find yourself tinkering with transitions, voiceover and the like, obsessively.

Just like pros do.

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor at The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel magazines, and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

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