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System Lets You Make Family Videos That Are Actually Worth Watching


If you have a camcorder in your closet, chances are you have enough video of vacation trips and the like to drive even your closest friends and relatives out the door. But if you want to make movies that people will actually watch, consider getting a desktop computer that acts as a video editing studio.

Companies including Sony, Dell Computer and Apple Computer make such machines. I tried Apple's new line of iMac DV computers.

Starting at $1,299, the iMac DV (for digital video) is a desktop video editing studio. Combined with a digital camcorder, the system allows you to produce professional-looking videos with audio overdubs, fade-outs, scrolling text and titles and other tricks.

You can perform some of the same stunts with a good video camera and a VCR equipped with audio dubbing. But that's a cumbersome process, and it's hard to elevate your project beyond rough-cut quality.

By comparison, the iMac DV--which comes with Apple's iMovie software--enables you to seamlessly assemble video clips, stack them in whatever order you choose, overdub sounds at the exact spot you want, and then export your finished product to tape or the Internet.

To put the iMovie through its paces, I took a digital camera on a family spring-break vacation to the Grand Canyon, shooting about an hour and 20 minutes of tape. My goal was to use iMovie to distill that down to about 20 minutes.

Naturally, I made all the mistakes of an amateur: zooming in and out like a yo-yo, panning too fast, shooting too much scenery and not shooting enough close-ups of people talking to the camera.

That's where iMovie comes in--making it easy to cut out the bad scenes, and allowing you to add music, narration and scrolling text to enhance the visuals. One cautionary note: If you get one of these things, be prepared to spend too much time with it. The technology is addicting.

Getting Started

To start the editing process, you connect a digital camcorder to your iMac DV using the supplied FireWire high-speed connection, allowing you to view the digital images on the screen.

(If you have an analog camcorder, you can buy a digital converter for about $200--but before shelling out that much, you might consider buying a digital camera.)

As you play back the film, you do your first rough cut--selecting footage that becomes a series of numbered clips streamed across the bottom of the computer screen. The clips can then be rearranged, or cropped to get an even tighter edit.

A pop-up menu allows you to add transitions between clips, such as dissolves and fade-outs--or have the image fly away in a shrinking box while the next scene comes into view. While simple, these tricks really enhance your project.

For example, I had shot some scenes of us getting ready to leave our house, but didn't take out the camera again until we were getting out of the car at the Grand Canyon. Not ideal--one minute in L.A., the next in a national park.

Here's where the beauty of video editing came in. On a side trip, we shot scenes of the desert from the moving car. I shunted that clip almost all the way to the front of the video, dissolving from the scene of us at the house to the driving scenes, then another dissolve to the family getting out of the car at the canyon.

The transition takes only a few seconds on screen, but gives the viewer the illusion of travel.

The iMovie software also enabled me to add titles identifying various Grand Canyon landmarks. For a side trip to the ruins at Wupatki National Monument, I added scrolling text on the mystery of what happened to its ancient inhabitants.

Finally, I recorded music over much of the footage. It beats wind noise, but mostly I wanted to cut out my annoying behind-camera directions.

When finished, I copied the movie back to a fresh tape on the digital camcorder. You can either play that tape on TV directly from the camcorder, or record it to a VHS tape (with a slight loss of quality). And because it's digital, you can post the video to a Web site or e-mail it to a friend.

Trouble Spots

Not everything went smoothly. The iMovie software allows you to crop and split clips, but the process was a bit counterintuitive--at first, I would actually cut the scene I wanted to save. Finally, after a couple of trips to the Help menu, I figured out how to crop correctly.

It also took awhile to figure out some of the other finer points. To add a title, for example, both the iMovie tutorial and Help menu instruct you to drag the Title Palette from your on-screen bag of tricks to the position on the film.

The palette wasn't well-identified, and I kept trying to drag the title text itself. By trial and error, I figured that one out.

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