iMovie and the fuzzy still

Reader Jim Houle is not alone in being unhappy with one of iMovie’s shortcomings. He writes:

I’m all up-to-date with my iMovie/slideshow software and I’m still having trouble. Pictures that are sharp in iPhoto (or any other program such as Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop CS2, etc) lose their sharpness when added to iMovie and then burned to disk with iDVD. It seems that after a transition, the following picture is fuzzy and with a half second left to its time on the screen, the picture snaps into focus. It’s almost like the picture is displayed with big pixels and then moves to very small pixels.

I get “iMovie stills are fuzzy!” email a lot, so let’s deal with it once and for all. Yes, iMovie stills are fuzzy. Regrettably, it’s the nature of the beast. Images that are crisp when viewed in their native format and resolution get funky (and not in the desirable James Brown kind of way, but rather in an uncool Pat Boone kind of way). This is because iMovie has to convert these images to DV format and, quite likely, changes their resolution in the process. The results are not always pleasing.

Also, that out-and-into focus effect you’re seeing is often the result of a transition. Dissolves, for example, can cause this. To help avoid it, use a clean cut—one without a transition—between stills.

There are a couple things you can do to improve those images (or, at least, your perception of them). The first is to make sure that iMovie’s Playback preference is configured to show you the highest quality preview. (Go to iMovie -> Preferences -> Playback and enable the Highest option to make that happen.) When this preference is set to Standard or High, your stills are going to look this-close-to-terrible when you click iMovie’s Preview button. Choosing this option doesn’t make the movie look any better when it’s exported, but it does give you a more realistic notion of what the results will look like once you export the movie.

So much for perception, let’s talk reality. Your stills will look better in the finished product if those images are at least 640-by-480. Anything less, and iMovie blows up the images to make them fit the frame, which leads to big pixelation.

Apple suggests that if your iMovie titles or stills appear pixelated that you export your movie using QuickTime’s Expert Settings rather than sending it directly to iDVD using the Share -> iDVD command.

Specifically, choose Share -> QuickTime, choose Expert Settings from the Compress Movie For pop-up menu, click Share, and in the resulting Save Exported File As dialog box, choose Movie to MPEG-4 from the Export pop-up menu and LAN/Intranet from the Use pop-up menu and click Save. Once you’ve saved the movie, you can drag it into an iDVD project to add it.

But honestly, here’s the truth of it: To produce the best looking slideshows in iDVD, use iDVD to create them. In iDVD choose Project -> Add Slideshow and double-click the My Slideshow entry that appears in your project’s main screen. In the screen that reads Drag Images Here, do exactly what it says—either by selecting and dragging images from the Media Browser or dragging images from the Finder into the window. Choose a duration for each slide, add transitions and music, and click the Play button to see how the slideshow will look when burned to DVD. I think you’ll be far happier with the results.

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