Avoid iMovie HD annoyances

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from iMovie HD & iDVD 5: The Missing Manual , by David Pogue (2005; reprinted by permission of O’Reilly Media). For more information, go to www.missingmanuals.com.

iMovie HD, the video-editing component of the iLife ’05 suite, isn’t just a tweaked update to previous versions. Apple completely rewrote big chunks of the program’s code. Put another way, big chunks of the program are now at version 1.0. And you know what that means: bugs.

Here are a few of the most common iMovie HD problems—and the world’s best attempts at solving them.

iMovie misbehaves when accessing files on an external disk

The disk on which your iMovie HD project sits must be prepared using the Mac OS Extended formatting scheme, also known as HFS+. All Apple drives come formatted that way, but some people have been known to buy an external FireWire hard drive from another company, plug it in, save an iMovie project onto it, and immediately run into massive problems. The fun may include dialog boxes that complain about file permissions, missing files, and “Icon” documents. If you’ve just bought a new drive, check the disk format before using it. Do that by highlighting the disk icon in the Finder and choosing File: Get Info. Under the Format heading in the resulting dialog box, you’ll see the formatting scheme identified. If the format isn’t correct, use Disk Utility to reformat the drive (this involves erasing the whole drive).

Camera stops importing after two or three seconds

The likely culprit is FileVault, a feature of OS X 10.3 and later that encrypts files in your Home folder so that ne’er-do-wells in the neighborhood can’t break in when you’re not at your desk. If you save an iMovie HD project into your Home folder with FileVault turned on, the Mac will try to encrypt the video you’re importing from the camcorder in real time—and this can’t be done. Either turn off FileVault (in the Security preference pane) or save your iMovie HD project someplace outside your Home folder.

Don’t let the dimensions shown in the Movie: Share dialog box confuse you. For wide-screen projects, the settings are wrong. They say the exported CD-ROM movie will be 320 by 240, for example, when in fact it will be 320 by 180.

iSight titles and transitions look wrong

Sometimes iMovie HD imports video from an iSight camera at the wrong image size. The video looks fine in the iMovie window. But if you add titles and transitions to the video, they appear in the upper left corner of the iMovie window.

Actually, the titles and transitions are OK; it’s the iSight video that’s the wrong size. The trick is to choose Window: Show Full Size Resolution before you import the video. Then the iSight video should arrive at the proper size.

Wide-screen video gets letterboxed

Some camcorders offer a special shooting mode called 16:9 video (that is, wide-screen format). When you import this 16:9 video into a DV Widescreen project, iMovie HD sometimes wants to letterbox it, adding horizontal black bands above and below. Since the video is already 16:9, that’s probably not what you want iMovie HD to do.

The letterboxing begins as soon as you switch from Camera mode to Edit mode and click on a clip. The workaround is to not switch modes after you’ve imported your video. Instead of switching to Edit mode, stay in Camera mode. Save the project, quit iMovie, and turn off the camera. When you reopen the project, the video will stay 16:9.

Title backgrounds appear jagged

The quality of the image behind a title in iMovie HD isn’t as good as it once was, especially if you burn the movie to DVD. The title looks great, but the background acquires jaggies, stair-step lines along hard edges (see screenshot). DV and DV Widescreen projects seem to be the most vulnerable.

Here are some tricks to minimize the jaggies:

Reposition Try placing your title over video that contains natural objects instead of artificial ones. Faces, landscapes, and flowers tend to work better than rooflines, deck railings, and fences. Avoid objects containing straight lines and hard edges.

Keep It Steady Place the title over video that doesn’t move. A clip that zooms in on a building may look worse than a clip with no motion.

Blur the Image Before importing the photo, soften the image a bit. Try iPhoto’s Edit: Adjust: Sharpness function or Adobe Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur.

Convert Before adding the title, export the clip to a DVCPRO - NTSC QuickTime movie and then reimport that to iMovie HD. (If your video is in PAL format, use DVCPRO - PAL instead.)

Go Solid Place the title over a black frame instead of a video clip.

Title flows over edge of movie

A small bug in iMovie HD sometimes allows a title to flow off the left and right edges of the movie. The solution is to drag iMovie’s text-size slider to the left to make the text smaller and then try again.

Scrolling block title scrolls too fast

iMovie HD lets you create much longer scrolling block titles than the last version allowed: they can contain well over 4,000 characters. The trouble is, as you add text to a long title, iMovie doesn’t update the maximum title duration displayed next to the Speed slider. The slider limits you to the maximum duration for a short title, which is about 20 seconds. So when you apply the settings, the long text scrolls fast—much too fast to read, which is a definite downside.

Here’s the trick: after typing your long text in the title, click again on the Scrolling Block style name in the title list. Voilà! Now the Speed slider gives you the option of setting a much longer duration. Set the Speed slider to the duration you want, and then redo the title.

Ken Burns accelerates too quickly

When the Ken Burns effect zooms in on an image, it sometimes accelerates out of control. After a short pause, the effect zooms faster and faster, all the way to the end of the clip. You can’t get rid of this acceleration, but you can minimize it. These solutions rely on eliminating the pause at the start of the clip, which makes the zooming look smoother:

Zoom Less A gentle zoom is usually better anyway.

Add a Transition Add a Cross Dissolve transition before the Ken Burns clip; the transition covers the pause at the beginning. (The length of the pause depends on the duration of the clip and the amount of zoom.)

Crop the Clip Set the Ken Burns duration a second or two longer than you actually need. Then, after the clip is finished rendering, crop out the first part of the clip by dragging its left edge to the right.

Direct trimming doesn’t work

One of iMovie’s most delicious features is direct trimming, which allows you to drag the right or left end of a clip to change its length. If this feature stops working—that is, the cursor never changes to offer direct trimming—that means you have Show Clip Volume Levels turned on in the View menu. You can’t drag edges when your audio clips display the little horizontal volume lines.

Effects change a clip’s color

How’s this for weird? You apply an effect to one clip, and its background suddenly changes color to match the hue of the last title you created. The workaround is to delete the effect (select the clip and press the delete key), save the project, close the project, and then reopen it. Now the effect should work correctly.

Export to homepage doesn’t have fast start

Fast Start is the QuickTime feature that makes it possible for your movie to start playing in your audience’s Web browsers before the download is complete. Unfortunately, Fast Start doesn’t work when you export an iMovie HD movie to HomePage.

For now, the solution is Francis Gorge’s shareware program Lillipot 1.2. It lets you add Fast Start to your movie before you upload it to HomePage.

iMovie’s golden rules

If there’s any common wisdom at all about iMovie, this is it: a pair of golden rules that will stave off a huge number of problems down the road.

Upgrade Use the latest version. Each .01 or .02 upgrade zaps a whole host of bugs and glitches. These updates are free, so when your Software Update program advises you that one is available, jump at the chance to install it.

Record 16-Bit Audio The typical digital camcorder can record its audio track using either 12-bit or 16-bit audio. The factory setting is 12 bits, which gives people who don’t edit on computers a chance to overlay a second audio track without erasing the original camera sound. The trouble is, 12-bit audio may slowly drift out of sync with the video when you burn the finished project to DVD.

[ Contributing Editor David Pogue is a computer columnist for the New York Times and the author of Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Tiger Edition ( O’Reilly, 2005). ]

Before I added the title, the roof in this video footage consisted of nice straight lines. But with the introduction of the title, the roof became a jagged mess.
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