Web Informant #252, 19 June 2001:
Making Movies


The most fun that I have ever had with any of my computers is using my Mac to edit and produce digital video movies. Maybe it was because of a strong interest in photography. Maybe because the Apple iMovie software is one of the best pieces of software that I have ever had the opportunity to use (and given how many products I have touched, that is quite a compliment). Maybe because making movies is just a lot of fun.

If you are considering getting a new video camera, I strongly recommend one of the digital ones. Yes, you will pay a few hundred dollars extra for a digital model, but you will find that having a digital camera changes everything about how you take and finish your films.

In my video life BiM (Before iMovie), my wife and I were probably very typical about how we did our movies. We shot lots of hours of tape through the camera, mainly around various family events, and then maybe watched the tapes an average of one time. Most of the time, the scenes went on for far too long for anyone, even the filmmakers, to view them without getting fidgety. Then we would store the tapes away in a box, never to see them again unless we had a spare day or week to wade through all the scenes to find the one or two moments captured on tape that were really interesting.

But soon after getting my Mac, I was deep into video production mode, mining all these great moments of yesteryear and condensing unwatchable hours of tape into just a few minutes of joy and fun. What was unwatchable at several hours is another thing entirely at a minute or so of highlights. And while you could edit the tapes without a computer, having a program like iMovie makes it really workable to do this.

If you do decide to go this route, you will need a recent Mac that has a firewire connection. Most of the iMacs and the G3/G4 series come with such a connection, which is also called IEEE 1394 or i.Link, depending on whom you talk to. While there are some Windows PCs that come with firewire ports (the Sony desktops and laptops in particular come to mind), you don't even want to consider using Windows for digital movie editing when you can see how much easier it is to do on a Mac.

These firewire Macs come with the right kind of cable to connect your camera to the computer, too. (There are two kinds of firewire cables, by the way.) Next you have to consider what kind of digital video camcorder you want to buy. If you have already shot a great deal of analog 8mm movies and have tapes galore like me that you have hardly ever watched but want to edit down into something useful, then you have a simple decision: which Sony Digital 8 camera to buy. Sony is the only major vendor that sells cameras with this format. Their Digital 8 cameras can view older analog 8mm tapes, in addition to creating new digital ones. In fact, the digital Sonys use the same 8mm tapes that you buy for your older analog camera -- the only difference is that when you use these tapes to record, you only get half the time that the tape is rated for. In other words, a two-hour 8mm tape will only be able to film an hour's worth of digital movies.

But if you don't have any significant 8mm video archive, then you can consider other digital formats: there are some that make use of smaller tapes called miniDV and therefore have smaller camcorders, for example. A great site to evaluate these products is Steve's Digicams. On his site you will find reviews of individual camcorders, explanations of the various technologies, and lots more useful help. And Steve himself is very responsive to any email questions you might have.

If your Mac didn't come with iMovie, you can purchase it directly from Apple's web site and download it to your computer. A few years ago, Apple did something really stupid and didn't sell iMovie at all -- you had to buy a Mac that came with the software bundled. Happily, this has changed, and if you own a Mac that has a firewire port you can buy a separate copy of the software and have it running within a few minutes.

The process flow for making a movie is as follows. First, shoot your videos in your camera. Then hook up the camera to your Mac with the firewire cable and bring up iMovie. Now play the scenes back from the camera, capturing them into your computer's hard disk. Once you have all your content transferred over, you do your edits in iMovie, adding titles, sounds, backgrounds, special effects. Don't forget to cut down those scenes into something that is snappy, tells a story, etc. But the important thing is to have a ball doing whatever you want. One of the nicer things about iMovie is that you can take one of your audio CDs, or even an MP3 file, and use the music in your movies. (Just don't plan on selling your movie: that would violate the copyright laws.)

When you are finished with your project and ready to save it, put in a fresh tape in your camera, and then play the movie from iMovie back to the camera to record the finished product. If you want to create a VHS version to distribute to friends and relatives, hook up your camera to your video deck and make a copy onto VHS tape or tapes.

A great book that explains the various inner workings of iMovie is David Pogue's "iMovie 2: The Missing Manual" by O'Reilly. It will take you step by step through what you need to know about making a movie, and lots of tips about using the software effectively. You can buy the book directly here.

iMovie is a great piece of software engineering. Perhaps the Windows world will get around to this level in a few years, but in the meantime it is worth getting a Mac for editing movies and the opportunity to use this software.

CODA. If you really want to suffer with a Windows video-editing rig, read these stories by Robert Richardson about his experiences.







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David Strom
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entire contents copyright 2001 by David Strom, Inc.
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