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It was love at first splice. From the moment you first fired up your iMac DV, you and iMovie 2 ( Reviews , October 2000) made beautiful movies together. But now, well, maybe it's just the seven-month itch, but you think you've noticed a few imperfections. That cute little Titles Speed slider seems a tad imprecise; those effects don't seem so special anymore; and when it comes to video, the timeline definitely has a one-track mind. Face it: iMovie is stifling your artistic freedom. You need something more.

So you jump on the Web to check out Apple's professional option, Final Cut Pro. Its feature set looks great, but then you see its price: $999! Does artistic freedom have to come at such a high cost?

Don't despair. There are several attractive DV-editing programs that let you move beyond iMovie, without paying twenty times its price. I'll take a feature-by-feature look at three of these packages -- Adobe's $549 Premiere 5.1c, Digital Origin's $499 EditDV 2.0, and Strata's $249 VideoShop 4.5.1 -- so you can determine which is best for your needs. Digital Origin also has a free, scaled-down program called EditDV Unplugged 1.6.1 not included in my comparison (see "Making the Cut" for details on this and the other programs in the story).

Facing the Interface

Nowhere is Apple's knack for elegant, efficient design more evident than in iMovie's Aqua interface. And although none of the three applications I examined can match iMovie in the looks department, their ease of use can make up for a host of physical imperfections.

The Screen Test   Working with VideoShop's Storyboard and Time views should make iMovie users feel right at home, since they function almost exactly like the Clip and Timeline viewers in Apple's program. Unfortunately, there's not much else that will remind you of iMovie's elegance. VideoShop's tiny buttons are tiresome to work with, and there are even a couple of misspellings in the interface. And unlike iMovie, VideoShop doesn't offer device control, so you have to operate your camcorder manually.

Premiere's interface is no raving beauty, but at least it functions efficiently (see "Coming Attractions" for a sneak peak at Premiere 6.0). Tools are neatly organized, and the Monitor window defaults to a professional two-view setup -- with a screen on the left for working with individual clips and a screen on the right for viewing your masterpiece-in-progress.

When VideoShop and Premiere display DV footage on your computer monitor, the picture is "stretched," making all your actors look slightly fatter. Only EditDV is able to give you an undistorted view of your footage on screen. It also has by far the most professional-feeling interface of the bunch (see "iSaver"), with the overall deep gray color reducing glare from the screen.

The Final Reel   Of these three applications, EditDV is the most pleasant to spend long hours interface-to-face with.

Help Is on the Way

A good software tutorial is like a map -- it gives you a feel for the lay of the land and doesn't completely abandon you to unknown terrain. A software company can do a lot to help first-time users get oriented, and that help becomes more important as a program gets more complicated.

The Screen Test   All three of these applications come with tutorials and printed manuals, but EditDV's instruction betrays its roots in Windows. When the tutorial begins "Choose Options from the View menu" and there is no View menu, you know you're in for a perilous journey.

VideoShop and Premiere go a step further by giving you on-screen tool tips that tell you the name of the tool you're about to select. But only Premiere gives you online help in the Help menu, which is great when you need easy access to additional information.

The Final Reel   iMovie may not need a manual, but Premiere's complexity is matched by Adobe's efforts to help you learn the program.

Clips Galore

As you've slowly pieced together your own Citizen Kane , you've watched iMovie's Clip Shelf grow into an organizational nightmare. Editing software should help you put your hands on just the clip you need when you need it, and each of these programs offers improvements in that area.

The Screen Test   Within VideoShop's Bin window, you can organize clips into folders. The Bin window also boasts a nifty feature called Micons, tiny animated previews of your clips. It's nice that you can rename clips inside the Bin window -- but it would be nicer still if the program remembered those names the next time you opened the project.

In Premiere, clips are stored in the Project window and sorted into bins. Double-click on a bin, and it opens in its own window. If you want to use a set of clips from your current movie project to construct a trailer in a new timeline, Premiere offers project-independent bins called Libraries.

EditDV's approach is almost identical to Premiere's, but its implementation is a little tidier. Clicking on a bin from the list on the left side of EditDV's Project window reveals a list of contents on the right. The handy Clean Up Bin command can free up precious disc space by deleting all the clips you wind up not using. EditDV doesn't offer a library feature, but a far better solution for all three programs would be to allow for multiple timelines within one project.

The Final Reel   EditDV offers the neatest solutions for calming the chaos of your creative process.

Tweaking the Timeline

If you thought using iMovie's Paste Over command was sophisticated editing, wait until you learn about slipping, sliding, rippling, and rolling. These may sound like activities in a water park, but they're actually invaluable techniques for adjusting clips in a timeline to help synchronize them with your audio track.

The Screen Test   VideoShop offers rolling edits, but working in the program can otherwise be very awkward. If you want simply to drag through the timeline to review your work, you have to either hold down the option key or move the scroll box in the bottom navigation bar of the Timeline window.

Premiere offers an intuitive approach to basic editing that makes strong visual sense (see "Track Team"). Transitions go in the Transition track, snapping to fill the amount of overlap between the clips in the A and B video tracks (to transition between clips, they must be in opposite tracks).

EditDV also has a dual view -- similar to a method used in analog editing -- but most editing in the program is done in one track, as in iMovie. You can also collapse Premiere's A and B tracks and work with them combined.

The Final Reel   It's hard to choose between Premiere and EditDV when it comes to basic editing. Premiere has a tool for every conceivable purpose, but EditDV's more streamlined approach works quite well without them. EditDV has more options for speedily rendering previews, but Premiere's multiple-undo capability gives you greater flexibility.

Sweet Sound

Although every picture tells a story, good sound can make that story flow better. With two audio tracks (in addition to the one stored in the video track) for aurally embellishing your movies, iMovie is surprisingly capable in the sound department. Still, adding more tracks can give you even greater opportunities for rich, multilayered audio.

The Screen Test   VideoShop offers an unlimited number of audio tracks, as well as a nifty program called TuneBuilder that can create generic musical soundtracks in various styles. Audio fades are controlled in VideoShop by dragging points to stretch a horizontal line that represents the clip's volume. Unfortunately, VideoShop's implementation of this rubber banding technique needs a lot of work; the points lurch suddenly when you try to drag them, and you can adjust volume only in 20-percent increments.

EditDV gives you as many as 20 audio tracks, and like many features in the program, audio control is effect-based. Only after applying the Sound Fade filter do you get access to the program's precise rubber banding.

But both VideoShop and EditDV stand in the long shadow of Premiere's audio capabilities. Premiere lets you rubber band both volume and stereo panning, and it gives you strong control over the quality of your audio with excellent filters for equalization and reverb.

The Final Reel   Premiere's audio capabilities are top-notch, and that's important when you consider that sound usually makes up half of your movie.

Lots of Layers

Just as multiple audio tracks let you hear more than one sound at a time, multiple video tracks make it possible to see more than one clip at once. This technique of layering images simultaneously on screen is known as compositing . You see a form of compositing when your local news broadcast uses a blue screen to place the weather forecaster in front of a weather map. Multiple video tracks open up a world of creative opportunities for you to explore.

The Screen Test   Creating a picture-in-picture effect with VideoShop couldn't be more intuitive: just grab a clip by the corner in the Canvas window to resize it. If you want to animate your clip to move across the screen, you can draw a motion path in the Canvas window. Unfortunately, superimposing isn't nearly as well implemented, since changes in opacity are controlled with VideoShop's cantankerous rubber bands.

Premiere's Motion dialog box is uncharacteristically clunky. When you apply the Motion settings, you automatically animate the layer, even if you wanted only to shrink it down for a stationary picture-in-picture. You have to cancel this animation each time you apply Motion settings -- not a one-click process -- before you can proceed.

EditDV's filter-based approach to compositing gives you terrific control. The Picture-in-Picture filter lets you adjust opacity with a simple slider, and the Pan-Zoom-Rotate filter makes it easy to tilt your clips at extreme angles, with built-in drop shadows for realistic depth. The best thing about EditDV's compositing is that it allows you to set animation keyframes directly in the timeline, so synchronizing the timing of your various video elements is a snap.

The Final Reel   Compositing abilities are the best reason to move beyond iMovie, and EditDV is the clear winner in this arena.

Just for Effect

If you downloaded the free Plug-in Pack for iMovie 2, you probably filled your family-vacation footage with every fade, wash, and dissolve in your palette, making your final cut a visual mess. Having more options to choose from brings a chance for more variety, but with it comes the responsibility to use those effects with discretion (see " Tempting Text."

The Screen Test   EditDV offers the least temptation in this respect. Although its 29 effects and 24 transitions may sound like a lot, they're slim pickings compared with the effects in the other programs. EditDV's transitions and effects are quite flexible, and after you've edited one in the timeline, you can drag it to the Effects window and save it there for reuse. While this is a handy feature, it would be nice if Digital Origin had done some of this work for you by creating more presets.

Effects are VideoShop's strong suit, with some very sophisticated filters that are usually found only in applications such as Adobe After Effects (see "A Fine Mesh"). In addition, VideoShop has the ability to map your video onto animated 3-D objects.

Premiere ships with a staggering 82 video effects and 89 transitions. Although numbers don't tell the whole story, Premiere's effects generally look excellent in the final render.

The Final Reel   Premiere and VideoShop are both excellent choices if you're looking to spice up your favorite footage.

The Last Word

VideoShop isn't in the same league as Premiere and EditDV, but it costs only about half as much. (A version without the printed documentation comes bundled with XLR8's $99 InterView [770/564-5682, www.xlr8.com ], a USB device that digitizes analog video and audio.) VideoShop is a big step up from iMovie in areas like compositing and effects, but in too many ways it's a step down -- for example, in ease of use and device control.

That brings us to the real contest here, and it's a close one: EditDV versus Premiere. EditDV is an extremely capable professional editing program, and it's slightly less expensive and more streamlined than Premiere. If you have editing experience with a program other than iMovie, you should give it a try. But if you're looking for the heir apparent to iMovie, Premiere has a slight edge with its intuitive interface and excellent Help options.

So if you're ready to take your movies -- and editing skills -- to the next level, now is a great time to invest in your cinematic future. m

GALEN FOTT ( www.grundoon.com ) is the director of online development for Total Training, Inc.

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