The whole desktop video editing scene

Posted on June 23, 2005

Phew! What a ride I’ve been on since late last week!

After struggling to get something done on Flickr-Tools late last week I’ve then had a rather full weekend. First, on saturday, there was the wedding of one of my brothers-in-law, then there was the show we put on for the end of the dance-school year (32 years old and I’m doing this kind of stuff… And I’m in the lowest half of participants, age-wise). After the show I went back to the wedding so the day was a rush. Then on sunday there was a second running of the show… Busy, busy, busy!

But I digress, the main point of this post is to talk about my experiences with desktop video editing. So anyway, I’ve been flirting with this particular media format for a while now, but never got around to doing anything tangible on the actual video front and kept myself pretty much to slide-show type stuff (for a very loose definition of slideshow that is). So following the advice of people who know their stuff (even if the advice was given for a slightly different field but hey, good practices are universal anyway) I’ve decided that this weekend’s shows were the perfect opportunity to get myself some hands-on experience in the area by means of an assignment. So I just took my parents’ miniDV camera with me to the backstage and told everyone I’d make a DVD of the whole event for them (committing to yourself is just fine, but it helps to commit to others also) ;-). Now I’ve had my father record the show itself on saturday, another person recorded the whole event (our show and all the others) on sunday and then I shot my own footage backstage.

So now I had footage of the show itself (two instances of our own show and one of the whole event), some 20 minutes of footage of our group, a few pictures taken saturday on the backstage and some other pictures taken a while ago on our last exam. Sounded good so I decided to go with that.

People who know me and/or follow this weblog know I’m a Mac user for some time so, naturally, I decided to use iLife tools for this particular job. I didn’t want to go with fancy stuff and it’s steeper learning curve so I opted for the basics –iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes and iDVD. Oh, and I also had to use Garage Band for a little sound editing. It was way overkill for what I wanted, but it was just sitting there and I had never used it, so it sounded like a good opportunity to just fire it up and see if I would be able to use it for the first time and get it over with in under 5 minutes. It’s Apple software. So I was.

The experience was a pretty good one. Even using nothing but what comes pre-installed on a new Mac I achieved some pretty amazing results (given the time, effort and talent available, of course). So following are some thoughts, notes and just general ideas about using the iLife suite to create a truly home-video style DVD. This information will eventually be ported to the wiki, but since I want to revamp it in a major way it just sits here in the weblog until I come for it.

And now, without further ado and in no particular order, some notes and thoughts on iLife ‘04-based desktop video editing:

  • iMovie is quite limited in it’s raw video editing capabilities. This is a good thing for people like me who have lots of crazy ideas and absolutely no experience whatsoever with this kind of media. It keeps me in check and lets me get things done in a “good way” instead of letting me get bogged down in menus and buttons trying to make it the “perfect way”. The “good way” turns out to be pretty good almost all of the time, actually.
  • iDVD is very limited in what it lets you do to the structure and menus of a DVD. This is not so hot. I know the DVD itself has a lot of stupid limitations, but there are tools out there which allow for a lot more flexibility than iDVD. Still, it gets the job done, for the most part, even if you have to nudge, push and kick it in the right direction over and over again sometimes…
  • In iMovie, when you cut out a piece of a clip whose speed has been altered, take the remaining piece back to it’s normal speed and then back again to the faster/slower speed or else iMovie won’t take the piece out of the sequence and weird things happen.
  • Why oh why can’t I make a theme (and I mean a full theme, not an adaptation that I then save as a favorite) in iDVD? Huh? Why can’t I see or edit the grid position for items on menus? And why can’t I assign the browsing order to the items on the grid? Whyyyyyyyy?
  • iMovie will crash on you when you’ve been at it for a number of hours. Even with a good CPU, plenty of RAM and so on, if you’ve messed with your clips until they cannot be recognized, you edited the hell out of them, you’ve cut, pasted, undid it, did it all over again, synced audio, un-synced it, messed with it’s volume, added pictures, changed clip speeds and all that jazz then you should really just save your work, close iMovie and open it up again. It’s only happened to me once, but I lost maybe one and a half hours of work and it took me another 45 minutes or so to get it back (it was easier, of course, because the decisions where already made, I just hat to do it again).
  • Re-doing your work for whatever reason (yeah, even because of software crashes) does have it’s advantages. Things really turn out better the second time around. The morale tends to slip a bit, but in the end your work is a little bit better. Of course after you’ve done this a million times and you are already really hard-core with the software this will probably just get annoying to death, but then you won’t be using these apps anymore, now will you?
  • In iDVD’s menus just KISS. iDVD has it’s own structure of menus and menu grids (which are very helpfully hidden by the way) and it will make a royal mess of things if you just give up on it’s (often idiotic) automatic placements of items and try to go the “manual placement” way. Just either use it’s default themes and find one which has a good placement matrix or, if you really must go with a “customized” theme (as I had to because I am one of those persons) make the menus as simple, nay, spartan as you possibly can and then keep insisting on the proper location of the items each time you visit that particular page. You will not get the items exactly where you want them, oh no, but eventually they do settle in a place which is “good enough” and it’s 5 in the morning and you have to get up for work early and suddenly it just looks OK. Seriously, this is major, major hassle and the one case where the apps’ “good enough” is far from good actually.
  • Do try out the DVD in a living room DVD-player before committing to more copies of the DVD or to declare the project “done”. The DVD player in Mac OS X is very forgiving as regards to actual viewable screen-size. Living-room DVD players are not. Also, the “show TV safe area”, while helpful as a general guideline, errs on the side of caution. If limits where like it shows you you’d have no room in the TV to view your movie. I aim for the middle ground and it seems to work out pretty well.
  • Given enough media with good (DV or somesuch) quality, encoding the assets will take time. Plenty of it. Get ready for it.
  • iMovie uses a kind of “movie” file which is miniscule but seems to be (and as you may be able to tell, I am definitely not an expert here) essentially a collection of indexes and pointers to other media files. Quicktime and all of it’s derivatives can play this file as if it where a single movie, which is rather cool. Now for the not so cool part: when you “export to iDVD” from within iMovie, what it will do is create a folder called “Shared Movies” on the project’s folder and, inside it, another one called iDVD. Therein it will create one of those tiny “movie” files pointing to the movie you are currently editing. This is cool because every change you make to your movie is immediately reflected on the movie you see in iDVD. Now even if you don’t export to anything, iMovie will also create a similar file on the project’s root folder. Same name, same content. What sometimes happens is that the root folder’s version of the “index” movie will get updated but the one on the “Shared Movies” folder will not. Not fun. Not at all! Of course, just copying the file over solves the issue, but most certainly defeats the purpose of the whole system…
  • When you throw media inside your DVD just throw it with the highest possible quality. Worry about available space later because iDVD seems to be perfectly able to manage the DVD’s space and compress accordingly if you use the right setting (encode for top quality instead of encoding for speed). This is, obviously bound to some common sense, the medium does has a fixed size limit.
  • It is possible to have a movie with chapters et al in a folder (not on the main page). Just create the movie in iMovie (or whatever) and then import it (in the case o iMovie import the tiny “movie” file) into the menu you want it to be on. iDVD will create two links for you: one with the movie itlsef and another to a folder with the links to the chapters.
  • It appears that you cannot create new pages for the chapters links in iDVD. So if you import a movie with, say, 10 chapters and iDVD makes them fit on two pages, should you want to have more pages with fewer chapter links in them you’re basically out of luck. I just cannot beleive that this could be possible, but the truth is that I did not find a way to add an extra page (and make it be linked with the “next” “previous” arrows) anywhere. If you can do away with the arrows then you can create folders and just cut and paste the chapter links, but you loose the arrows. Also you cannot create links to the chapters yourself, should you delete a link you’ve lost it for good. These items are just so dumb that I’m praying that someone will tell me what an idiot I am that I didn’t figure out that the way to do it is this and that. I can only hope…

These are some of the main points I gathered from three nights of precious little sleep but much fun editing my footage. Take everything I said above with a very large grain of salt. I usually know what I want to achieve before trying to materialize it and in this case I have no clue how to get there, so I just try to coax the software into doing what I want. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Other times I give up, let Apple take me by the hand and I’m pleasantly surprised. A few times (luckily very few of them) I just can’t do what I want and hit some twisted bug, misfeature or just a plain limitation of the software. When it is a bug or misfeature it is annoying but I can live with it. When it is a limitation, well, this programs are pretty basic stuff and the goal is for your granny to be able to use them, so it doesn’t bother me in the least. If I come to a point where I think I am able/want to take the heat I’ll step into the kitchen and get Final Cut or some-such. Until then I’m perfectly happy with my “basic consumer” stuff.

I may be adding things to the above list until I make a wiki page out of it. Or, then again, maybe not.