So you’ve had that nifty digital camcorder for a while now, and you’ve managed to capture footage of your exotic vacations, family birthdays, and get-togethers with friends. But if you’re like most casual videographers, you’ve probably noticed that while it’s fun and easy to shoot lots of video, you rarely get around to watching much of it. It’s just too much work to load the tape back into the camcorder, rewind to the beginning, and fast-forward through the parts where you accidentally recorded the inside of your camcorder bag. Plus, you’re viewing everything on your camcorder’s small screen.
What you really need to do is to port the video over to disc, where you’ll have random access to all its scenes. Along the way, you can use video-editing software and your PC to edit that raw footage, putting the best of your video in a format that’s easy to watch (as well as easy to pass along to friends and family). By the time you’re done, you can wind up with a convenient and high-quality DVD that will work in almost any player, or you can save it as a video stream that’s Internet-ready.
To the uninitiated, video editing can seem like a mysterious art full of obscure tools and terminology. In truth, video editing is time-consuming, but with a little knowledge about video editing workflow and some good software, such as Adobe Systems Premiere Elements or Pinnacle Systems Studio Plus 9, both priced around $100, anyone can create great-looking home movies.
To demystify the process, we’ll help you choose a video editor, and we’ll step you through the process of transferring video from camcorder to PC, editing video, and saving the final cut to DVD–the most convenient media for storing and watching your mini-video masterpieces.
An Array of Programs to Choose From
So many different video editing packages are available for use on the PC that picking one can be daunting. Some programs such as Avid’s Xpress DV, Adobe’s Premiere Pro, and Sony’s Vegas 5 are high-end packages designed to edit everything from industrial and wedding videos to documentaries and even feature films. You can always grow into these heavy-hitter applications later, but they aren’t the best choice for casual videographers, since they sport complicated interfaces–and cost hundreds of dollars, to boot.
Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable video editors that make editing fairly hassle-free. In addition to Adobe’s Premiere Elements and Pinnacle’s Studio Plus 9 (see “Inexpensive Video Editors Shine” for a review of these two products), Ulead’s VideoStudio is a popular package. All three programs offer features that casual video makers are bound to appreciate, such as titling tools, effects for things like color correction, and templates.
Each of these editors has a simple interface designed to step novices easily through the editing process. Pinnacle’s Studio Plus 9 is so straightforward that you can likely get it to work just by glancing over its menus and some self-explanatory buttons and tool icons. This kind of intuitive design is especially important if you plan to edit video infrequently, as it spares you from repeatedly relearning the application’s process and tools. In addition, all three apps can export to DVD (or create Web movies).
Adobe’s Premiere Elements is the most powerful of the three, with a sophisticated interface that will appeal to both novices and experienced home-video editors. It also provides a great collection of special effects.
Some editors include music libraries and sound effects that you can quickly add to your videos. Ulead’s VideoStudio offers a feature called the Auto Music Maker, which generates a musical track–in a number of styles–that exactly matches the length of your movie. We were a bit skeptical about such a feature (elevator music anyone?) but with a large library of generally well-done musical samples, there’s a good chance that one or more will match up nicely with your video’s content. Of course, you may just want to capture ‘real’ music from your favorite music CDs, which is easy to do in all editors as well.
Video Editing 1-2-3
To walk you through the process of capturing and editing your video, we’ll use Adobe’s Premiere Elements as our editing package–we consider it the best overall editor in the affordable category. If you use a different editor, many of the same steps and principles apply.
To build your home movies, you’ll also need a few other things. For starters, a relatively fast PC is essential–most editors require at least an 800-MHz Pentium III processor, or an Athlon equivalent, but a CPU running at 1 GHz or above is preferred. Another necessity: 256MB of RAM (512MB will run most video editors even smoother). Most editors also prefer that you’re running a variant of the Windows XP operating system. As for hard-drive space, you’ll want enough to hold your digital-video files and temporary working files (you’ll need about 13GB of hard drive space for every hour of digital video you work with), and a rewritable DVD drive if you want to record your movies to DVDs.
Most DV camcorders support FireWire connections: You’ll need a cable that matches the connector on your camcorder–usually a 4-pin connector–and a port on your PC, usually a 6-pin connector. If your PC lacks a FireWire port, you can buy an add-in card for as little as $20. If your camcorder has only analog video out, you can purchase video adapters that convert your analog video to a digital format on your PC. Check out “Put Your VHS Tapes on DVD.”
Step 1: Capture Your Footage
To get started, you first need to transfer the footage on your DV tape to your computer’s hard drive by connecting the camcorder to your PC. Keep in mind that your original footage will continue to reside safe and sound on your DV tape–you’re merely making a copy of it on your hard drive, where you can then edit it to your heart’s content.
Capturing video footage from tape to your PC couldn’t be easier with Premiere Elements (but the task is pretty simple with most other video editors, too). Just insert the videotape into your DV camcorder, and then connect the camcorder to your PC with your FireWire cable. With a single button click, Premiere Elements automatically takes control of your camcorder and captures whatever footage is on your tape. (The process takes as long as it takes for the tape to play, so capturing 60 minutes of footage would take 60 minutes.) Of course, this could create a very large AVI file, depending on the amount of video captured.
Step 2: Edit Your Footage
Once Premiere Elements is finished capturing your video, it places it in the Timeline window, where you cut and rearrange your digital footage. (Other programs provide a similar setup.) Along the length of the Timeline, you’ll see thumbnail images representing different frames of your video, running from left to right. The footage will already be divided into different clips, with each clip representing a different scene in your video. By reading the time-code information on your videotape, Premiere Elements can tell each time you stopped and restarted recording as you were filming. It uses these stops and starts to create your new scenes.
But before editing your video, you’ll want to check the scenes so you can figure out which footage is important, and which can go to the cutting room floor, so to speak. To play video sections, click your mouse on any thumbnail in the Timeline–you’ll see the clip’s first frame appear in another window, the Monitor. Click the Monitor window’s Play button, and Premiere Elements will play from that point forward (you can stop playback by clicking the Stop button as well).
As you watch your video play in the Monitor window, you’re likely to see some unwanted footage. If you’re very familiar with your video, you might be able to discard some clips without watching them the whole way through; other clips may require editing to zap unwanted moments. Naturally, you don’t want to cut an entire clip for fear of skipping over something great. You can delete the unwanted bit from the start or end of a clip simply by clicking and dragging the clip’s edges on the Timeline. You can see exactly what footage you’re trimming by keeping an eye on the Monitor window, which shows whatever frame will become be that clip’s new first or last frame when you release the mouse.
Using Premiere Elements, you can also cut video out from the middle of clips by selecting the Razor tool (its icon looks like a razor blade) and clicking it anywhere on a Timeline clip. Doing so will split the clip in two; from there, you can use Premiere’s Selection tool to select one of the new clips, and cut it by pressing the Delete key. Don’t fret about accidentally trimming or cutting important video, since you can get anything back thanks to multiple levels of undo and redo. Premiere Elements even has a Photoshop-like History palette, which lets you retrace all your editing steps, one by one.
To get a sense of how your edited movie looks, play it in the Monitor window, and then repeat the trim-and-delete steps as many times as needed.
Before moving on to Step 3, there’s one more component of the Timeline you should know about: It’s divided into long rows, known as tracks. Tracks make it possible to stack video clips on top of each other, so that they play at the same time. For instance, you could create a montage of video clips playing over each other, or a picture-in-picture effect whereby a video appears in a small region over a larger-size video.
These tracks, which are common to all video editing packages, also let you add sound effects and music to your videos: Just add them in their own sound tracks. That way you can adjust video and audio that you recorded in the camcorder separately. The same goes for sound effects–just place them in an empty Timeline track, and line them up with the right video frames.
Step 3: Enhance Your Video With Effects and Titles
The next step in creating a professional-looking movie is adding effects. Most editors provide transition effects that let your video smoothly progress from one shot to another, rather than abruptly cutting between shots. A simple, classic transition in Premiere Elements is the CrossFade (one shot fades out as the next shot fades in). Like all transitions, it’s easy to apply–just select the transition from the Effects window and drag it over the border of two side-by-side clips. The same goes for tons of other transitions, so new video shots spin into view, wipe across the screen, and so on.
Premiere Elements includes dozens of effects that you apply by dragging one or more from the program’s Effects window to any clip on the Timeline. Some change the color of your video, while others tint it, remove color (for a film noir effect), or make existing colors stand out more. Motion effects let you scale video clips up and down or rotate them, and others can add unique effects such as blurs, distorts, or speed changes so your video plays in slow or fast motion.
Audio effects are just as easy to apply to clips on the Timeline. Some help reduce background noise (although these can’t work miracles); others stylize audio–for instance, speeding it up, slowing it down, or making it sound as if it’s coming out of a telephone speaker.
Finally, you’ll probably want to add some text titles to your videos–an opening title card, for instance, or movie-style rolling credits at the end. This process is no problem at all–Premiere Elements, like most editors, offers a wide array of fonts and templates you can apply in a snap. (Some editors also offer affordable, add-on template packs for even more ready-to-go options. For instance, Ulead makes a $14.99 Movie Theme Pack for its VideoStudio editor that provides several templates for camping, football, and other themes.)
Step 4: Record Your Video to DVD or Other Formats
When you’ve finished editing your video, your final step is to choose how you want to “distribute” it–that is, whether you want to record it to a DVD or even back to a DV or VHS tape. You might want to encode your video as a digital file that you can post on your Web site or e-mail to friends.
For most people, recording edited movies to DVD is the best bet, since almost anyone with a DVD player or drive can play the disc. (Most set-top DVD players can play computer-burned DVDs–especially +R and -R discs–but you may encounter incompatibilities with older players.)
Premiere Elements has some neat features that make creating DVDs easy. The program offers a large number of predesigned, polished DVD menu templates that you can quickly apply to your own DVD-in-the-making. The templates match the design styles of Premiere’s title-card templates, so your video and DVD menus can have the same consistent look. Also, like many other video editors, Elements can automatically generate a “Chapters” table of contents for your video by examining its different scenes–a convenient feature that can also be hit or miss, since Premiere may give a scene its own chapter marker, while you may feel the scene isn’t worth highlighting. Fortunately, you can always set chapter markers yourself.
Building your DVD menus with Premiere Elements can take just minutes, at which point you’re ready to burn your disc. The actual burning process, however, can take a while. Working with nearly all video editing applications will take lots of time beforehand to render effects and encode your video into the MPEG-2 format, which is what DVDs require. So expect to walk away and make yourself either a cup of coffee or perhaps a five-course meal, depending on the length of your video and the processor speed of your PC.
Almost all video editing applications can also encode your video as a digital video file. Premiere Elements can create files in either QuickTime or Windows Media formats, which is useful if you want people to download them over the Internet. While video encoding can be a technically complicated process, Premiere Elements makes it easy by limiting the encoded video’s file size and image quality to just a few choices.
Whatever you decide, you should still set your expectations relatively low, because Internet-ready videos typically suffer from one of two problems. Either the video file is too big to conveniently download or attach to an e-mail, or if the file is small, image quality suffers from lots of pixelation (especially in scenes with high motion). Premiere Elements gives you a quick-and-dirty solution, but if you’re expecting to achieve the file size and quality levels of professionally encoded videos you see elsewhere on the Internet–such as slick movie trailers–then you’ll be disappointed.
So there you have it, our four easy steps of video editing: capturing video, editing video, polishing and enhancing video, and outputting your final masterpiece to a format that you can easily play on your TV or send over the Net. Spending $100, going through an easy learning process, and then allowing the necessary time for rendering, you can transform unwieldy, even tedious, raw footage into gems and highlights you’ll love to watch.