Getting started with iMovie

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This week we begin our exploration of Apple’s video-editing application, iMovie ’11. With it you can import bits of video (called clips) from your camera, add existing clips currently on your Mac, add still images from iPhoto, add music background tracks, edit clips so they contain just the parts you want to see, combine clips into a fully realized movie, add transitions such as fades and dissolves between clips, add effects and titles, and share the results with family, friends, and the world at large.

Powerful? Oh my, yes. Easy to use? After I complete this series of lessons, absolutely. In this first lesson we’ll focus on iMovie’s interface.

About cameras and file types

Before we look at iMovie’s interface elements, let’s briefly examine what kind of content you can use with the application. You can import video from a variety of devices, including digital camcorders (those that record to hard drive, flash memory, or DVD), digital still cameras that use some type of memory card (SD Card and CompactFlash being the most common), tape-based camcorders, and mobile devices that record movies (such as your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch). It supports both high-definition and standard-definition video.

iMovie can additionally import QuickTime and MPEG-4 movies. And via the application’s media browser, you can import still images from your iPhoto or Aperture library as well as bring in music files stored on your Mac.

About events and projects

When you’re first starting out, it’s important to understand the differences between events and projects. An event is Apple’s way of organizing clips. The program typically organizes events by date.

By default, clips shot on the same day are gathered together in the same event and titled with the date they were imported—New Event 10–10–13, for example. Events are listed in iMovie’s Event Library pane. When you select an event, its contents appear in the Event Browser, which you can find to the right of the Event Library. (I’ll cover the topography of the iMovie interface shortly.)

A project is the movie that you’ll assemble from your clips. So, using a baking analogy, events and their clips are the movie’s flour, salt, water, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, almond extract, and chocolate chips. A project is the resulting big cookie.

Touring the iMovie interface

If you’re accustomed to a timeline-based video interface—one in which you arrange clips on an unending line—the iMovie interface may be a little strange to you. It appears to have a wealth of clips yet no timeline to drag them to. Although it’s true that the interface is unconventional compared with “the way things were done,” it’s hardly impenetrable.

The default layout of the interface contains five panes and a toolbar in the middle of the iMovie window. Here’s how the elements shake out.

Event Library pane

iMovie's Event Library.

In the bottom-left corner of the iMovie window is the Event Library. This is a sort of table of contents for your events. Here you can see your events gathered together by Last Import, iPhoto Videos (those imported into iPhoto), the year, and events within each year. Select one of these events, and you see the contents of that event in the…

Event Browser pane

Any clips within a selected event appear here, just to the right of the Event Library. Clips display thumbnail images of their contents. For example, if you have a clip of your dog hilariously slurping from a bowl of butterscotch pudding (not a good idea, cautions the ASPCA), you’ll see snapshots of Fido and the alleged dessert. How many images are present depends on the slider just below this area. Move it to the left to see more thumbnails and to the right to see fewer.

Individual clips appear contiguously and bear rounded borders. If a clip is so long that it breaks into additional lines within the browser pane, you’ll see those breaks as jagged edges, indicating that this material is from the clip on the line above, not a separate clip. If you’d like to get a preview of the clips’ sound as well as thumbnail images, just click the button below that displays a soundwave. A blue bar will appear below the clip, with lines indicating where sound appears.

In the Event Browser single clips show as one unit with rounded corners.

You can preview the content of a clip by hovering your cursor over it and pressing the Mac’s spacebar. The clip will play in iMovie’s viewer from the location where you placed the cursor (which is marked with a red line).

You can also “skim” (also known as “scrub”) through the contents of the clip by dragging your cursor over it. How slowly or quickly it plays depends on how rapidly you move the cursor over it.

By default, when you click a clip, you select four seconds of that clip, starting from the point where you clicked. A selection is indicated by a yellow outline. You can increase or decrease the length of the selection by dragging either of its edges.

Viewer pane

Since I’ve just mentioned it, let’s jump to iMovie’s top-right corner, where you find the Viewer pane. When you skim or play an event or project, you’ll see the video here. You can increase or decrease its size by dragging its bottom border, or you can use one of three preset sizes. To do the latter, choose Window > Viewer and then select Small (Command-8), Medium (Command-9), or Large (Command-0). If your Mac has multiple displays and you’d like to have iMovie’s controls on one display and the Viewer on another, choose Window > Viewer on Other Display.

The pane in the bottom-right corner

I wish I had a better name for it, but its name depends on what you’ve instructed it to hold. It can be the ‘Music and Sound Effects’ pane, the Photos pane, the Titles pane, the Transitions pane, or the ‘Maps, Backgrounds and Animatics’ pane. You can choose each by clicking the appropriate button just above this pane (or access them by going through iMovie’s Window menu or by pressing the Command key plus 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5).

iMovie offers a collection of transitions.

As you might imagine, the ‘Music and Sound Effects’ pane is where you choose music to accompany your movie. Within this pane you can select a track and preview it by clicking the pane’s Play button. In the Photos window you choose still images that you want to add to your movie. (Imported still images play for four seconds by default.) In the Title pane you choose a title style for your project. The Transitions pane is for selecting a video effect that takes place when one clip ends and another begins (or the first clip begins and the last clip ends). And the ‘Maps, Backgrounds and Animatics’ pane is for accessing maps graphics for creating travelogue-type movies, adding cool backgrounds that you might use behind titles, and storyboarding elements (a feature that I’ll explain in depth in a future lesson).

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