Getting started with iMovie

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 friends, family, 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. These include digital camcorders (camcorders that record to hard drive, flash memory, or DVD), digital still cameras that use some variety of memory card--SD and Compact Flash 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 first starting out it's important that you understand the differences between events and projects. An event is Apple's way of organizing clips. Events are typically organized 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 101013, for example. Events are listed in iMovie's Event Library pane. When you select an event, its contents appears in the Event Browser, which is found 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, a hint of 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 where you arrange clips on an unending line--the iMovie interface may be a little strange to you. There appears to be a wealth of clips yet no timeline to drag them on to. While it's true that the interface is unconventional compared to "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. This is how the elements shake out.

The Event Library pane

In the bottom-left corner of the iMovie window you see the Event Library. This is a sort of table of contents for your events. Here you see your events gathered together by Last Import, iPhoto Videos (videos imported into iPhoto), 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 the contents of the clip. 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 you see 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 the line above, not that it's a separate clip. If you'd like to see 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.

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 on 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 on either of its edges.

The 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 on its bottom border. Or you can use one of three preset sizes. To do that 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.

That 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; Photos pane; Titles pane; Transitions pane; or Maps, Backgrounds and Animatics pane. Each can be chosen by clicking on the appropriate button just above this pane (as well as accessed via iMovie's Window menu or by pressing the Command key plus 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5).

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 on 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).

The Project pane

In iMovie's top-left corner you find the Project pane. This is where you drag clips to piece together your movie. It's iMovie's answer to the timeline. For example, for a simple movie project you might first click on the Title button and drag it into the first dotted box. You could then move to the Clip Browser, select some footage from within that clip, and drag and drop it right after the title clip. Now choose a different event from the Event Library pane, make a selection in the Event Browser, and drag it into line. Repeat for other clips and add a title at the end.

The movement between clips is quite abrupt so to smooth them out you click on the Transitions button, select an appropriate transition, and drag it between the title and first video clip. Then do the same kind of thing between your other clips within the Project Viewer. Just as with clips in the Clips Browser you can play and skim the contents of the Project pane. Place your cursor at the front of the first clip, press the Mac's spacebar to preview, and marvel that, hey, you've made a movie!

If you find that you just can't get past the lack of a timeline, here's a little hint. Click on the Timeline toggle button at the top-right corner of the Project pane--the one with the three dashes. The clips will shift down to the middle of the pane, the project's time will appear in increments along the bottom of the pane, and a scrollbar becomes available below that. As with the Event Browser pane you can choose the time increments you see using the slider at the bottom of this pane. Similarly, you can choose to show a preview of each clip's audio track by clicking the soundwave button.

At the top-left of the Project pane you'll see a Project Library button. Click this and you'll see a list of any iMovie projects you've created.

The toolbar

Unlike other Apple applications, iMovie plants its toolbar in the center of the window. I'll describe how they're all used in a future lesson but for now, here's the gist:

Camera Import: Click this button to expose the Camera Import window. This is where you pull clips from your camera as well as perform a live capture from compatible cameras connected to your Mac (including Apple's built-in FaceTime cameras).

Swap Events and Projects: You can swap the position of the Events and Project panes by clicking this button.

Zoom slider: Drag this slider to increase the size of thumbnails within the Events and Project panes.

Add Selected Video to Project: Rather than drag selected portions of an event into the Project pane, you can make that selection and then click this button to add the selection to the next available space in the project.

Mark Selected Video As Favorite: I'll talk about making favorites in another lesson.

Unmark Selected Video: Like I said.

Reject Selected Video: This excises a selection within a clip in the Event Browser. You might use it to trim material from the beginning or end of a clip that you know you're not going to use.

Record a Voiceover: This brings up iMovie's audio recording window. Yes, you can make your own director's track!

Crop, Rotate, and Ken Burns: As with iPhoto, you can crop and rotate bits of video. You can additionally add a pan-and-scan effect (notably used by director Ken Burns) to your clips and still images. When you click this button, controls for these features appear in the Viewer pane. I'll discuss these options at another time.

Inspector: It's within the Inspector that you can make fine adjustments to a clip's video and audio tracks. A lot can be accomplished here and we'll go over all of it in the future.

Turn Audio Skimming On and Off: I mentioned that you can skim through events and projects by dragging your cursor over them. By default you'll hear the effect as well as see it. If you don't find audio skimming helpful, just switch it off with this button.

Sound meter: This meter gives you an idea of how loud or soft the movie's audio is. When it extends way into the red, your audio is too loud, possibly to the point of distortion. When barely any green shows, the audio's too quiet.

Then there are the five lower-right pane buttons, which I've already talked about.

And that's the broad overlook at iMovie's interface. Once you've learned what goes where (and how the various panes are related) you'll find it easy to start assembling your own movies.

Next week: Importing clips and basic project creation


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