Review: Making iMovies (book)
Developer: Peachpit Press, written by Scott Smith
Requirements: iMovie software, FireWire- and DVD-equipped Mac.
It’s a pleasure to see such good iMovie stuff out there. I expect we’ll be able to do an iMovie story each month for a while, either a book review or a tricks-and-tips tutorial. And someday, when Apple releases its stranglehold on iMovie’s architecture (I love using high-tech buzzwords—they make me feel like I know what I’m talking about), there will be third-party effects to add to our transitions and titling palettes. But for now, the bulk of what’s available for iMovie users is information on how to use what you’ve got. As we ride the cutting edge of the digital video wave, making our iMovies and mixing our metaphors, we need all the information we can get.
Scott Smith’s iMovie tutorial, Making iMovies, takes a unique approach to iMovie documentation. First, Smith subscribes to the theory that iMovie users don’t really need documentation for their software. Hey, look, it’s a valid opinion. Admittedly it’s not my opinion (see my review in ATPM 6.10 of David Pogue’s iMovie: The Missing Manual), but it’s apparently Apple’s opinion or they’d have supplied documentation when they supplied the software. If you want my opinion, read last month’s ATPM—but don’t think my opinion is “right” and Smith’s is “wrong,” or you’ll miss out on some useful information.
Second, Smith believes that iMovie users mainly need to know how to make films. He writes and edits for RES: The Magazine of Digital Filmmaking and is a founding partner of a digital effects house that serves the Hollywood folks that can’t afford Industrial Light and Magic. He’s a long-time digital filmmaking professional, and thus has a unique perspective on the needs of iMovie users. And from that perspective, he’s got it down solid. (Hey, I wouldn’t give this book a Very Nice if I didn’t think it was worth reading and absorbing and adding to your library.) But I do get the feeling the author considers iMovie so easy to use it’s barely worth discussing.
Now, compared to the professional editing software Smith’s been using throughout the 1990s, iMovie is ridiculously easy to operate. If you’ve been using a Mac for some years, and you’ve been working with After Effects or Premier or Final Cut Pro, hey, iMovie is a walk in the park. And if you and your friends have been sharing your iMovie films, where have you noticed their most glaring defects? Seriously, now, what have you seen that you don’t like? What makes the average iMovie film as challenging to sit through as was the average home video? Or the average home movie before that?
Okay, I won’t make you pick on your friends—especially since your iMovie-making friends probably read ATPM, and they’d be saying the same things about you. I’ll make this a rhetorical question, and give away the answers:
- Storytelling failures. Distraction, lack of continuity, lack of direction, and sometimes just plain lack of story.
- Camera-handling failures. Background clutter, inappropriate wobbles, poor choice of point-of-view, and a failure to focus (literally) on the center of attention.
- Editing failures. Inappropriate cuts between scenes, too much irrelevant footage, too many pans and zooms (and not enough Dramamine), and feeping creaturism.
These sins (except for the last one) go back to the 60s, when 8mm movies reached the masses. If you’re too young, ask your folks if they remember visiting friends to watch their vacation movies. They’d sit in a darkened room, nursing mixed drinks and nibbling party snacks made from breakfast cereals, while Ralph narrated, “Here’s Martha and the kids standing by the Grand Canyon and waving—except for Clarissa, she’s the shy one.”
Home video made things worse, because with tape so cheap and no film development cost, Martha and the kids could afford to wave at the camera for a minute or two at a stretch. Also, sound was recorded with the video, so Ralph didn’t have to narrate any more. His voice came right out of the TV, saying, “Here’s Martha and the kids standing by the Grand Canyon and waiving. Clarissa? Clarissa? Come on honey, wave to the camera. Wave to Daddy now. Clarissa. Clarissa, I’m not going to tell you again. We’re all going to stand here until you wave. I’m warning you, young lady, if you can’t follow a simple order I can see we won’t be bringing you along any more…” and so on and so forth until the Low Battery warning begins to flash.
Then the camcorders came, and then they got fancy, and then they got special effects built in, and the creatures began to feep. “Here’s Martha and the kids standing by the Grand Canyon and waiving, and here’s what they look like with everything turned blue, and here they are made into big boxy pixels like how Yul Brynner saw things in Westworld, and Clarissa’s not waving. How come, honey, are you feeling kind of—watch this, everybody—feeling kind of…blue?! Ha ha ha, get it?”
iMovie has only made feeping creaturism worse. Of what earthly use is a radial transition? Or twenty-three seconds of Flying Letters titles? And while iMovie titles look quite professional, they’re too dang easy to use and thus you see them everywhere. Yep, in Flying Words and Typewriter, you can now read about Martha and the Kids Standing by the Grand Canyon. Also, iMovie titles look professional enough to violate the voluntary Cutesy Warning Standards of the Consumer Electronics industry. (You see a professional-looking title, you get comfy in your chair and say to yourself, “Hey, this is looking pretty good”; you see Titles by Clarissa, in crayon on notebook paper with ducks and bunnies, you know from the get-go it’s going to be so twee you’d better go back to your car and grab the insulin out of your glove compartment.)
And that, my friends, is where Making iMovies comes in. I’ve got to tell you, I read Making iMovies from cover to cover and did not learn one thing about using iMovie software (admittedly I’m pretty good with iMovie, and this isn’t the only book I own on the subject), but I learned one heck of a lot about digital filmmaking and how to improve my own videos. Best of all, Making iMovies uses the medium a budding iMovie videographer will best understand—actual digital video. You’re interested in iMovie because you’re a visual person; you want to communicate through digital film; motion on screen appeals to you, talks to you, touches your mind (and maybe even your heart and soul). So what better way to reach you than through actual iMovies, with sample projects you can load and run on your own Mac?
There’s no better way; that was a rhetorical question. Making iMovies comes with a DVD in the back, containing all the files necessary for three complete iMovie projects. And these aren’t dumb little washing-the-dog projects; these are full-fledged short films: an extreme-sport/coming-of-age romp, a film noir romance, and a war epic—all scaled down to joke-and-a-rimshot size.
Make that “very short”—one minute for the shortest, 2-1/2 minutes for the longest. But they are genuine little films, with stories and everything. That’s right, a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a laugh at the end, entertainment in the middle, and a teaser intro at the beginning. And with the exception of the Storyboard lesson, everything in these lessons and advice seems like something you and I could do just as well as the author. This is a challenge in the ed biz, particularly for experts in their field. The finished films are not intimidating. The equipment is not intimidating. The techniques are not intimidating.
Every step of the way (okay, except for the Storyboard part—I can’t draw, since drawing requires talent or skill or something—which would have been fine if the author had used stick figures) I found myself thinking, “Yeah, I can do that, probably even better, because I know better jokes and my friends are funnier looking…” which is exactly what I thought while watching The Making of Matrix except then I had to think, “…but I don’t have 80 million dollars,” which kind of ruined the effect. All three demo films look like they were shot on a budget of $27.85 with volunteer help saying, “Me, me, I want to be in your movie!” Truth is, the budgets were probably closer to a hundred bucks, and Scott Smith has some talented friends, but don’t let that stop you. With his guidance, you can make some decent short films that won’t have your friends squirming in their chairs, and your mother saying, “You know I’ll always love you, no matter what you do.”
The advice is down to earth. It’s probably all stuff you’d learn in your first semester of film school, but I never had a first semester of film school and don’t have the time to take it now. I’m better off spending $39.99 and adding Making iMovies to my short stack of iMovie books. My very short stack of iMovie books. iMovie: The Missing Manual is the only iMovie book I rate as “Must Have.” Making iMovies is the only one rated “You Really Ought to Have It Because Your iMovie Productions Are Going to Come Out a Whole Lot Better Once You Learn This Stuff.”
The enclosed DVD is what really makes this book. It holds 1.8 GB of files and projects, so if they were on CD, it would take three CD-ROMs to hold all the data, and if you downloaded them from AOL over your phone line it would take you until next Thursday. The book by itself? It would be worth adding to your library if it were half the price and if you were pretty deeply committed to iMovie, but it’s not detailed enough to serve as documentation, and the lessons wouldn’t have much impact without the examples up on your screen. So if you don’t have DVD playing capability—and I mean a DVD drive on your Mac, not on your television—you probably don’t need this book yet. It’s still Very Nice, but you can’t take advantage of the Nicest part.
There’s also bright side to the lack of documentation-level detail. This book and DVD package works just fine for iMovie 2 and won’t need revising for a long time.