The Vision Thing: Scenes from an iMovie

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Run Title, fade to Scene One . I'm in a restaurant, eating dinner with two friends. They're both in the movie business. We're talking about iMovie, Apple's new digital-video-editing tool that, in combination with a FireWire-equipped camcorder and an iMac DV, makes it possible for anyone, and I mean anyone, to create his or her own professional-looking movies.

"OK, I can see how it might give them the tools to make good-looking movies," one of my friends says. "But what about the technique? "

"iMovie handles transitions, fades, titling–even sound effects," I respond. "And the interface makes it pretty simple to figure out how everything works."

"How about blocking, pacing, lighting, camera angles, the elements of staging, and good storytelling?"

I counter: "Well, I guess it's just a case of garbage in, garbage out. We had the same problem at the beginning of desktop publishing–just because you can put 35 fonts on a page doesn't mean you should.

"What really matters is that the tools are here to give budding filmmakers the ability to express themselves–without hiring a film crew and a postproduction studio. And, hey, maybe you won't nod off during the next showing of My Daughter's Prom Night ."

A pause. Then: "What about sound?"

Cross-cut to Scene Two: ominous music plays in the background . I don't claim to be a video expert, although as an AV buff, I've used most of the video-editing tools that have come and gone on the Mac platform. But until that dinner, it had not occurred to me to think about the problems of sound and digital video. Sound to me was just that second and third track in the Adobe Premiere window.

But once I sat down to play with iMovie, and look at sound from an aesthetic as opposed to a technical perspective, I realized just how little I know about this simple fundamental of filmmaking.

So there I am, in my study, wrestling to make the sound sound right. But no matter what I do, I can't get there. The sound captured by the camera has just got too much ambient noise, no direction, and no leveling. And I can't separate the voice from the background. After years of watching films with multimillion-dollar soundtracks, it's almost impossible for us to listen to unprocessed sound. The sound recorded by a camera is too realistic, and as a result comes off cheap and cheesy.

And here I am producing films that sound like they were recorded over a long-distance call from Nepal. (Excuse me while I hang up the tin can.)

Scene Three. Cut from aerial shot of San Francisco into an office where a meeting is in progress . "So, we all agree that what most iMovie users really need is guidance." That's our features editor, Scholle Sawyer, speaking. We've just finished a brainstorming session on how Macworld should cover digital video in general and iMovie in particular.

"No one is going to become a Spielberg after reading one article in Macworld ," another editor chimes in. "But maybe we can give them enough advice so their next vacation video won't put the family to sleep."

Yes. Keep to the basics. Plan out your video before you shoot it by writing an outline, and stick with it. Make your scenes short, and no matter what, don't fall in love with your own footage, unless you want to be the only person who can sit through it. If you think it'll take ten minutes to tell your story, do it in five. If you think it'll take five, try to make it three.

Above all, set your expectations appropriately. Don't think MTV–think America's Funniest Home Videos . That way, you won't be disappointed. Remember, those MTV people work in million-dollar studios and have dozens of highly paid professionals who help make their videos look great. All you've got is a $1,300 computer, a video camcorder, and a few hours of spare time.

Who knows? Maybe you will break through the barrier and be the big discovery at next year's Sundance Film Festival. But even if all you're doing is saving your houseguests from the boredom of an hourlong presentation of your trip to Hawaii, you will have accomplished something.

"Okay, that's a wrap." Scholle says as the meeting concludes. "Let's go make a great feature!"

Yes. Let's.

Fade out. Roll credits .

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at

April 2000 page: 25

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