Video production on a shoe string

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

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In a few weeks, my little Parisian PR business, Antonia, will launch a web-based design project called Life Kino. The project revolves around the free sharing of video clips, submitted by a community of users. Loops, that enter the public domain as they are released so that the artistic community at large can benefit from them, are uploaded to a randomly generated virtual «wall», so that people and places that would never have met in the real world are put together.

Life Kino is one of these projects we find fun and interesting and we wish to share with the Internet community. It is however not a money-maker by any means and promoting it raised some interesting questions. Among these, was how we could produce a trailer, announcing the site, that would look good enough to be sent to the press and be cool enough for people to enjoy but that wouldn’t require financial means we didn’t have at our disposal?

It turns out the solution to our issues is iMovie HD! Indeed, while one-click movies and high definition capabilities have made the headlines of the specialized press, its improved encoding and picture managing capabilities have truly turned it into the ideal music video compositing tool.

The trailer we came up with revolved around the synchronizing of digital stills to music from one of our all-time favorite composers. This kind of project requires fine and painstaking editing (so that music and pictures are perfectly synchronized), robust picture management tools (to manage the large library of images that will be used) and the ability to visually match sound with images through, for example, the displaying of the sound wave. In that, iMovie, when used in conjunction with iPhoto and, to a lesser extent, iTunes, is a lean, mean producing machine — I know, I know, cheesy rhyme…

We started by importing all our pictures into a dedicated iPhoto album so that they would be easy to find within iMovie later. Here, it is important to keep two things in mind: pictures should be of the absolute highest resolution possible if you want them to look good in the final encoded movie (we had to take out a couple we liked because of their mere 72dpi resolution) and, while iMovie is, remarkably, able to display Smart Albums (something System Preferences still trips on), it is best, for purely organizational purposes, to create a regular album, that won’t change in your back should someone tinker with file names.

iMovie features a zooming option that allows you to get rid of black borders alongside the pictures. However, as it name implies, it is a zoom feature meaning it can potentially lead to information loss if you need to zoom in closely to make the picture fit into the frame. Instead, prefer cropping your pictures within iPhoto in advance — the “DVD 4x3” setting in the crop pop-up menu will do just what you want. Also, you can take advantage of iPhoto’s advanced color correction features to apply any special feel you desire to the pictures — that is, unless you are into heavier editing in which case an application like The GIMP will come to the rescue, plugging into iPhoto with a simple double-click. iMovie does feature color correction tools but these need to be applied to clips and are therefore better suited to movies than pictures — even though they work on them as well.

Preparing your sound track is easy: once it is downloaded or otherwise imported into your machine, simply import it into iTunes. As iMovie allows you to search your iTunes library from within the application, manual sorting is less of an issue but you will want to ensure that the file is properly encoded and in an efficient format — i.e. don’t import GBs worth of data into your iMovie project by converting your iTrip recordings to Apple Lossless or something equally inadequate. Should you need to perform any editing to the sound file, it may be a good idea to do so through QuickTime Pro right now, just for the sake of simplicity — this is however not an obligation as iMovie slices sound up just as well — by using the traditional “Split Clip at Playhead” menu.

Another advantage of preparing and trimming your files before importing is that iMovie HD will import them all into the project file, so as to be able to work with them. This means that, the leaner your input data, the smaller and more manageable your project will be — which translates into speed gains when editing, as well.

Adding photos in batch to the timeline is a simple drag and drop affair — make sure that the “Ken Burns Effect” box is unchecked, as this will allow your pictures to stay in pristine quality — that is, unless you wish to apply such an effect. Then, by using the “Show info” pop-up menu item that appears by right-clicking on the clips, set their length to something manageable — you did get a Mighty Mouse, right? Ideally, you want all your clips to fit into the timeline in a comfortable manner when you begin, so as not to lose track of what’s happening.

Since we were producing a music video, the audio track was of the utmost importance and we imported it right away, another drag-and-drop affair. You will want to ensure that both the Audio Waveform and Sound Levels are displayed, again by right-clicking on the track. (These two features are pure genius, by the way!)

With your audio track laid out, move, duplicate and place your clips over the music. Frequent previewing of the movie, as well as matching the timing to the waveform will allow you to compose your video.

A few tricks: should you wish to add any credits or clips before the video, do it right away: once you start placing clips onto the timeline, putting an element before them can ruin your timing or, at the very least, make it hard to put things back in place. When doing the rough arranging, iMovie’s clip view is a wonderful complement to the timeline, as it shows you all the clips in a large enough size to be seen — very short clips can get hard to see in the timeline, even if you zoom in at the maximum —, along with their length.

iMovie’s true power, and especially when you plan on releasing your creation through the Internet, lies in its sharing options. Indeed, most of the presets are just right and the QuickTime tab of the “Share” sheet will allow you to quickly pick up a format. Should you wish to geek it up all the way, opt for H.264 encoding, through the “Expert settings” pop-up menu: the encoding takes a bit of time but results can be stunning — we compressed a file from 70+MBs to a mere 15MBs thanks to H.264.

The only drawback of using the most modern codecs is that users will need to download the most recent versions of QuickTime to view them but that is nothing that proper coding and a QuickTime badge cannot solve.

Should you wish to burn a DVD with your movie, by the way, you can either use the built-in “Send to iDVD” function or export the movie as Full Quality, tweak it with QuickTime Pro (if you wish to add a standard warning or copyright notice before or after the track for example) and import it into iDVD as a QuickTime file.

The resulting movie can be seen here — and we hope you enjoy it. All in all, iMovie HD turned out to be the best application to put it together: it may do few things compared to a full-featured package like Final Cut Studio but, unlike many other consumer applications, it does what it does well, using the same professional-grade tools and frameworks than its big brothers and sisters. iMovie has truly matured through the ages and iMovie HD does an amazing job at hiding all the complexity there is behind the editing and encoding of a video. If you haven't checked it out yet, please do!


2005-09-03 05:03:19
Life Kino Trailer
Brilliant!! I loved the trailer. As someone who uses Final Cut Pro and Avid you've made us take a relook at something simple like iMovie.
2005-09-03 09:36:47
Life Kino Trailer

I'm glad to hear you liked the trailer! Thank you very much for your kind words and for taking the time to post, I really do appreciate it! :^)