Review: iMovie 1.0.2
Company: Apple Computer, Inc.
Price: free to download; $19.95 on CD-ROM
Requirements: iMac DV, DV Special Edition, Power Mac G4, or PowerBook with FireWire, Mac OS 9.0.4, QuickTime 4.1, 64 MB of RAM.
Home Movies Never Looked So Good
When I was little, my friend and I shot some cute little home videos. We’d sneak into my father’s closet late at night and quietly take the bulky camera, VTR box, and tripod. Then we’d move all the furniture and drape it in sheets, turning the living room into a late-night television set. My favorite video was a game show where we played for Monopoly money. The big winner at the end (always me) would have money rain down upon him. Things were simple back then—shooting the video involved pointing the camera in the right direction and pushing Record. There was no easy editing involved. The only way to edit was to physically cut the videotape at the appropriate scene and tape the next scene on.
Today there are a number of editing packages available for the consumer (or prosumer) video market. These, coupled with the newest breed of camcorders and computers, have made producing near-professional movies possible in our own homes. Now that FireWire is standard on more new Macs, producing these videos has become much more attainable for the average person. Additionally, the larger hard drives and increased RAM that come on Macs have made movie making much easier.
It’s been possible to produce movies on Macs for years, but it required extremely expensive hardware and software, and the learning curve for the available programs was just too steep for the casual user. Using a program like Adobe Premiere or Avid (and, more recently, Final Cut Pro) to make a home movie was like putting out a match with a fire hose. Even today, these programs are too involved for most users. Happily, Apple had the foresight to simplify a potentially very complex process, making it easy for just about anyone to make movies.
iMovie originally came only with a new iMac DV, but now it is a free download for anyone with a Mac. Free is a pretty hard offer to turn down, and with iMovie being such a good product, the only thing that might keep you from downloading it is not meeting the system requirements (mentioned above). Two things you can’t have enough of are RAM and hard disk space. Getting that video from the camcorder into your machine will take enormous amounts of disk space. Don’t think in megabytes, think in gigabytes. One second of DV footage will occupy about 3.5 MB of hard disk space; one minute will occupy about 210 MB. It adds up very fast! As far as RAM goes, get as much as you can afford. 128 MB of RAM will satisfy most home users.
Bringing in Video
The next big hurdle toward getting your footage into the machine is having a compatible camcorder. The acronym DV is thrown around a lot these days—it stands for Digital Video. Basically, it’s a video standard that’s comparable to what the big television networks use. As a matter of fact, UPN uses DV camcorders frequently to shoot several of its shows, and portions of this year’s Super Bowl were shot using DV cameras. iMovie requires a compatible DV camcorder in order for the computer to communicate with the camera when importing and exporting the video signals.
For those of you who don’t have a DV camcorder but still want to make movies with your Mac, there is an alternative. To have a VHS or S-VHS camera communicate with your Mac, you must use the Sony Media Converter (DVMC-DA1). This hardware attaches a time code to your analog video stream for programs like iMovie to use. It also functions as a converter from whatever output ports your camera has, through a FireWire cable, to your Mac.
There are several drawbacks to using the media converter. First, it costs about $500. For the money you’ll be spending, the quality of the video won’t be any better than before. Also, the iMovie software can directly control a DV, but not an analog camera. This is a big disadvantage that will make feeding video in and sending video back out a real chore. In the end, it makes more sense to sell your analog camera and use the money you’d have spent on the media converter to buy a low-end DV camera. The picture quality will be considerably better, and you won’t have to deal with conversion problems.
The Grand Tour
iMovie makes a complex process very straightforward. The interface is simple: occupying the upper left portion of the screen is your preview monitor. Here you can see all the video that comes in and look at your edited work. Just below that is a time line for either a single clip or the entire movie. Below that are controls, much like those on your VCR, for controlling the camcorder and the movie. Just below these controls, and to the left, is a set of three buttons that toggle between video import mode, editing mode, and preview. To the right is a bar indicating how much free hard drive space you have. Very thoughtful.
To the right of the preview monitor is a collection of empty squares. When you import a video clip, it will be placed into one of these bins. There’s a thumbnail image of the clip along with the length of clip and the title (which you can change). Oddly enough, the number of bins depends on how large your monitor is. You can, however, adjust your screen resolution to fit more bins. Once you’ve filled up all these bins, you cannot import any more clips. You must place clips in the time line or dump them in the trash to make more room.
Below the bins are the goodies to spice up your movie. There are four buttons: Titles, Music, Transitions, and Sounds. Clicking on a button brings up a menu of things to put into your video. If you want to have your first video clip fade into the next, just select Cross Dissolve, drag it between the two clips, and voilà. Everything is done automatically. If you want the transition to be faster or shorter, just move the length bar above the selections. Remember, you’ll have to adjust it before dragging it to the time line. Once it’s dropped in, there’s no way to adjust it other than deleting it and redropping the transition. Titles are a breeze. Just choose from a variety of different titling schemes, select a font, color, and background, and type in your title.
Note that even though the interface resembles QuickTime Player, iMovie cannot import QuickTime files. You’ll have to export any QuickTime files into another format before iMovie will be able to read them. This needs to be corrected in the next version of iMovie—it’s absurd that a video application from Apple can’t read QuickTime files!
Remember those sound effects from America’s Funniest Home Videos? Now you can be savvy like Bob Saget and have those zany sound effects go off at key moments during your video. There’s a wide assortment of sounds to choose from, and you can add sounds from your microphone as well. The music button allows you to import audio tracks from MP3s, or music directly from CDs.
When you drop effects into the time line, iMovie automatically renders whatever the effect is. Take, for example, two clips joined by a Cross Dissolve. A Cross Dissolve fades out the first image while the second image fades up to full. You’ll have to wait a moment while the computer renders your video, and you can see a little red progress bar on the piece being rendered. The auto-rendering feature is great for a program like iMovie. It makes things simpler for the user.
There are more than enough effects included for the home movie maker, and Apple has a large assortment of effects online to broaden your options.
The Time Line
At the bottom of the screen is the time line—perhaps the most critical part of the whole program. Everything flows to here. You drop clips and effects onto the time line and make edits for a smoother video. The controls are very basic: a video tab and an audio tab.
The video tab is simply a visual representation of the play sequence of the video clips. It also indicates transitions by smaller linking boxes. Located at the lower portion of the preview monitor is the actual time line for whichever clip is active in the main time line box. Confusing? Sure is. I wasted a good bit of time fumbling with this interface problem. If I wanted to view the finished movie from start to finish, I had to click somewhere in the white background area. That deselected all clips in the time line. Then, by pressing Play, I could make iMovie show the entire video. Of course, I could have pressed the Video Preview button, but that shows a full screen version of the movie. When editing, it’s important to see where you are in the time line.
The other major piece of the time line is the audio tab, indicated by a musical note. You have few choices here. There are three bars. You can see the audio from the video clips imported. You can choose either to have the audio on or muted. There is no option to mute some clips but play others. Nor can you adjust the audio levels. This is a big, glaring flaw in iMovie that needs to be changed. The second bar indicates sound clips imported from your microphone or from the collection of sound effects. Again, you cannot adjust the sound levels. The third bar indicates a musical track, like something imported from a music CD. I found this to be the most time-consuming part of making a video, when it shouldn’t have been. Adjusting the music to fit with my video was problematic, inaccurate, and a chore to figure out. Once I figured out how it worked, I had to wonder if Microsoft engineers had had a hand in it.
It’s Show Time
Once you’ve finished the video, exporting back to tape or saving it on your computer is a snap. Users of more complex programs know how easy it is to export a video in the wrong format. It happens all the time. iMovie lets you choose from several preset formats. One of them sends the video stream to your camcorder so it can be recorded onto tape. Apple has once again made a potentially painful process simple. You can also save in a variety of formats meant for viewing on a computer, such as an e-mail attachment or Web streaming. There’s little fussing with complicated options that sound like they belong on the Starship Enterprise. Here’s my completed movie (about 2 MB):
iMovie has some big flaws, notably the lack of decent audio controls and a complete lack of QuickTime support. The time line interface could stand some improvement as well. But overall, iMovie works very well. It makes movie making possible for just about anybody who knows how to turn on a Mac. The interface is simple and effective. You don’t even need a manual, although a tutorial wouldn’t hurt the real novices.