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iMovie 3 Tips and Gotchas

iMovie has become something of an odd duck in the Macintosh world. When Apple first introduced iMovie in 1999, the notion of easily editing digital video on a consumer Mac wasn't an easy sell. At the time, we described iMovie as "a consumer version of Apple's Final Cut Pro video editing software, which Apple apparently hopes will reveal a market for consumer video editing it has been trying to find for more than three years." (To our surprise, many readers expressed much interest in video editing then, via both TidBITS Talk and a poll we ran that week.)


Since then, iMovie has been a huge success for Apple, cited as much for its ease of use as for its capabilities as a video editor (even four years later, no Windows product has matched iMovie's features and ease of use). Although iMovie never displaced Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere in professional circles, it has provided a new outlet for expression to amateur filmmakers, vacationers, hobbyists, and school kids.

iMovie also helped give rise to Apple's digital hub strategy, which was especially evident in the release of iMovie 3 as part of the iLife suite of applications at last year's Macworld Expo in San Francisco (see "Apple Software Spices Up iLife" in TidBITS-662). iMovie 3 imports music from iTunes 4 and images from iPhoto 2 with ease, and offers a direct route for turning movies into DVDs through iDVD 3.


So why do I say that iMovie is now an odd duck?

Unlike most Apple software - or, in fact, most software in general - iMovie took a lurch backward in terms of performance with version 3. This quickly became apparent as I began work on my most recent book for Peachpit Press, iMovie 3 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide. Although the program introduced a number of welcome new features, performance was sluggish, the program crashed for no reason, and exporting data was problematic (see "iMovie, Take 3" in TidBITS-665). iMovie 3 had become the new Word 6 (for those who remember that giant step backwards).

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Then again, it may not be that bad. It must be noted that some people report having no problems with the program at all. I salute those lucky souls, because for me and untold others with whom I've corresponded, iMovie 3 has been unexpectedly troublesome.

How this came about isn't clear, and Apple is characteristically mum on the subject. However, I've read reports that a big factor was an Apple mandate to rewrite iMovie as a Cocoa application, versus existing in Carbon as was the case with iMovie 2 (for that reason, iMovie 3 will run only under Mac OS X, whereas iMovie 2 works under both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X). Another reason could be iMovie 3's greater reliance on QuickTime; as QuickTime improves, so does iMovie, which was evident when iMovie 3.0.3 and QuickTime 6.3 were released together in June with dramatically improved performance.


That said, iMovie 3 isn't a lost cause. The latest updates above improve performance and fix many of the program's initial shortcomings. Since we haven't written much about iMovie 3 specifically in TidBITS, I want to cover some tips about a few of the new features and point out some areas where the program still needs work so that those who are using iMovie 3 won't be tripped up.


Working with iDVD -- As part of the iLife integration, iMovie makes it easy to create an iDVD project of the movie you've built. You can also set up chapter markers in iMovie that the viewers of your DVD can jump to without fast-forwarding through every frame of your movie. The chapter markers are pretty rudimentary: move iMovie's playhead to the location where you want to start a chapter, switch to the DVD pane, and click the Add Chapter button. It would be nice to be able to edit a marker should you decide that the chapter should begin at a different location on the timeline, but instead you must delete the marker and create a new one. Once chapters are set, simply click the Create iDVD Project button, which launches iDVD 3 and assembles the project.

But what if you don't own iDVD 3? Perhaps you chose not to pay for the iLife upgrade (since iDVD 3 was the only iLife application not available as a free download), or perhaps you're using iMovie on a Mac that doesn't include a SuperDrive. In iMovie 2, you could save your movie using a "For iDVD" option in the Export dialog box, but choosing the same option in iMovie 3 results in a polite message that says you need iDVD 3. Fortunately, you can still export your movie in a format that iDVD 2 will read. In the Export dialog box, choose To QuickTime from the Export pop-up menu, and then choose Full Quality DV from the Formats pop-up menu. You can then import that QuickTime movie into iDVD 2, though you lose any chapter markers you may have set up.

Speaking of iDVD 3, remember that you can now run it on machines that don't include a SuperDrive by applying the iDVD 3.0.1 update (see "Using iDVD 3.0.1 on Non-SuperDrive Macs" in TidBITS-690). When I wrote that short article, I said it wasn't possible to install iDVD 3 from the iLife discs because the installer checks to make sure your Mac has a SuperDrive installed. It turns out that I didn't dig far enough. If you have an iDVD 3 installation disc (which is a DVD, not a CD, so you at least need a media drive that can read a DVD), follow these steps sent to TidBITS Talk and linked below.


QuickTime Reference Movie -- Astute video editors may have noticed an extra file in each iMovie project folder. In addition to the project file itself and the Media folder where video and audio clips are stored, iMovie 3 creates a QuickTime reference movie that reflects the state of the timeline at the last saved state. The file itself isn't very large because, like the iMovie project file, it contains only pointers to which sections of the media files are in use, as well as which titles, transitions, and effects have been applied.

The reference file becomes useful when you want to preview your movie outside of iMovie, such as in QuickTime Player or other third party viewers. It's also a quick way of adding a movie to an existing iDVD project. That's because using the Create iDVD Project button in iMovie 3 causes a new iDVD project to be created. If you instead drag this reference movie into iDVD, it creates a new folder in the project containing the movie and all of its chapter markers. This approach also retains the Play Movie option in iDVD, which can play the movie from start to finish while still retaining the chapters.

Audio Export Gotchas -- Unfortunately, the audio quality in exported iMovie movies remains one of the program's most annoying problems. Users report audible pops and sections where audio and video get out of sync.

One suggestion is to make sure your audio source is recorded at 16-bit audio instead of 12-bit. With 12-bit audio capture, the camcorder records audio in two separate stereo channels, which leaves room on the tape to go in and record more audio if necessary. 16-bit capture grabs audio at a higher quality level and leaves no room for more recording. However, since you're editing footage in iMovie instead of on the camera, the only benefit to using 12-bit audio is that it takes up less hard drive space when you import it; also, iMovie doesn't recognize separate audio channels the way other video editing software (such as Final Cut Express) does. If your footage is currently in 12-bit audio, export it from iMovie back to a blank MiniDV tape in your camcorder set to 16-bit audio, then re-import it into iMovie.

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Another suggestion sounds a bit more dubious, but seems to work. If, after exporting, audio fades aren't working, or if clips you had marked silent are still audible (which happened to me on one DVD project), the fix seems to be to have one clip selected in the timeline when you export your movie.

For clips whose audio has slipped out of sync, try extracting the video clip's audio to a separate track (select the clip and choose Extract Audio from the Advanced menu). Make sure the audio track is locked to the video track by positioning the playhead within the two clips and choosing Lock Audio Clip at Playhead from the Advanced menu.

Performance Issues -- Perhaps the most sporadic issue with iMovie 3 is general performance. Although iMovie 3.0.3 greatly improved performance, I still see stuttering audio and video, and occasional sluggish response when selecting clips or switching between the different effects panes. One general recommendation is to reduce the size of iMovie's window (now that the program doesn't cannibalize the entire screen, as in iMovie 1 and 2). Also, remove any third-party iMovie plug-ins to see if that helps. Since iMovie (and Mac OS X) love to consume memory, quit other running applications, and consider installing more RAM if your budget permits (see dealram for current RAM prices).


Sticking with iMovie 2 -- If the performance of iMovie 3 is unacceptable, and if you upgraded from iMovie 2, you can use it to open projects created in iMovie 3 as long as you don't mind abandoning iMovie 3's new features. If you haven't yet upgraded to iMovie 3, be sure to make a copy of iMovie 2 to ensure that the version 3 installer doesn't overwrite it. Or, if you have a set of your Mac's Software Restore discs that include iMovie 2, you can use a utility such as Pacifist to extract the iMovie 2-specific installer.


No doubt I haven't covered some problems you may be facing with iMovie; Apple's support discussion boards are filled with people reporting unexpected crashes, for example, that appear to be sporadic or difficult to reproduce. Although frustrating, these types of issues can be solved only by Apple's engineers. Given the company's high-profile push for iLife and the digital hub lifestyle, it's hopefully only a matter of time before Apple works out these issues. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend letting Apple know what you're running into by going to the feedback Web page listed below or by choosing Provide iMovie Feedback from the iMovie menu. Apple employees have assured us that these feedback reports are read, and enough of them can encourage an executive to reapportion development budgets to address the reported problems.


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