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Late for the Train: Editing Digital Video on the Cheap

For a long time, digital video editing seemed more work than it was worth, and I let Apple's DV train pass right on by. Recently, I was forced to catch up all too quickly, but I managed to do it without emptying my bank account on new hardware and software.

The Train Has Left the Station -- One of my jobs is being a drummer for a retro-'60s faux British Invasion band here in Vancouver called The Neurotics.


In spring 2001, our booking agent arranged to have one of our larger performances professionally videotaped by a camera crew. Several months later, she asked if we could make a three-minute promotional video from the resulting VHS tape, since many high-end clients want to see what they'll be paying for.

We had no particular deadline, no budget, and no one who knew what they were doing. The rest of the band members swiveled their eyes in my direction.

Laying the Tracks -- I decided to work with what I had: an older beige Power Mac G3, USB video input, the free version of iMovie 1.0.2 for Mac OS 9 (iMovie 2 for Mac OS 9 remains a $50 upgrade), and whatever other hardware and software I had kicking around. I wanted to buy only new videotapes and CD-Rs for the end product.

I figured that I would digitize the audio and video separately, then put everything together in my very limited spare time over the course of a couple months. I started by watching the whole performance and took many notes. Then I recorded the entire show's audio from my VCR (in mono) into Coaster, the free audio digitizer from Visual Click Software:


I broke the resulting files into a few chunks with the QuickTime Pro Player, then backed up the results to CD using Roxio's Toast.


Next, I fired up Pro Tools Free, a freeware 8-track sound mixer, which I used to edit (again in mono) the best bits of audio into a continuous montage of various songs and silly stage banter, with cross-fades, seamless splices, and other trickery to make sure it kept up a good pace. I saved it as an 18 MB AIFF file that was three and a half minutes long.


This soundtrack formed the backbone of everything else I did. Once it was finished, I left it alone.

Scanning the Scenery -- The next step was to tackle the video. I used my XLR8 InterView USB video capture device to digitize useful videotape segments. The InterView captures at 320 x 240 pixels, which is a lower resolution than the 720 x 480 output of a digital camcorder's DV (digital video) stream. However, it shares the same 30 frames per second (fps) frame rate as a camcorder.


Digitizing only short segments (between 30 seconds and 2 minutes each) became necessary because I have a relatively small 12 GB partitioned hard drive with lots of stuff on it already. At 215 MB or so per minute, there's no way it could hold two hours of video. (I ended up having to back up and purge my MP3 collection to make room.)

iMovie is designed to take digital video only from a DV camera through a FireWire port. With some trickery, however, it can also import DV files (but no other type of movie) from a hard disk. I used QuickTime Pro to convert each InterView QuickTime video file into a DV-formatted file. That scaled up the dimensions of the video images, but with the DV compression algorithm, each file stayed roughly the same (fairly huge) size, using up roughly twice as much hard disk space as the raw video files required on their own. After another backup, I deleted the non-DV movie files.

Coupling the Cars -- After all my importing and conversion, I created an iMovie 1 project. Although I have both Strata VideoShop 4.5 (included with the InterView) and Adobe Premiere LE 5.1 (included with my FireWire/USB card), I find iMovie so much easier to use that I was willing to go through all the DV conversion rigamarole just to use it. That's a testament to the good job Apple did simplifying iMovie to do the very essentials.


I next imported the entire audio track and did nothing with it for the rest of the time I worked.

After dumping a few of the DV stream files at a time into the iMovie project folder, I ran iMovie so it would find the clips and automatically import them as "strays." I then dragged them into the Timeline Viewer in rough order before I quit and dropped in the next batch, so that iMovie's clip tray wouldn't get full. (iMovie 2 removes this limitation.)


I did my editing in iMovie in one day, dragging files around, shortening them, creating transitions, and trying to get the images to match the rhythm of the soundtrack. During that time, I used GraphicConverter and Photoshop to create logo-title cards, manipulate still photos, and generate other JPEG and PICT files. On the Web, I also found an old-style "Indian head" TV test pattern, and a little stock clip of applause for the end of the video.

<http://www.apple.com/imovie/freestuff/ sounds.html#people>

Since I had sampled them separately, I didn't try to sync up video and audio at all, even though they were from the same performance. In the end, I was surprised at a few clips where it looked like people were playing precisely what was on the audio track - even when the audio and video were from completely different parts of the show.

The End of the Line -- I saved the completed video using iMovie's "Expert" QuickTime export settings, at 640 x 480, 29.97 frames per second, Cinepak compression at maximum quality, and uncompressed mono audio, 16-bit, 22.5 kHz. Essentially, that was as high quality as I could manage. This file was about 260 MB, and took my Power Mac G3/266 about four hours to generate.


I exported and posted large (13 MB) and small (6 MB) Web videos. Before posting them to the band's Web site, I opened them in the QuickTime Pro Player and zoomed them to double size for better visibility in Web browsers, especially on large monitors.

After I outlined most of this process in a TidBITS Talk discussion of digital video, Duane Byram of Apple's QuickTime engineering group noticed that he had to wait as each video downloaded before it would play. He offered a simple fix: save the file again from the QuickTime Pro Player as a "Self Contained" movie file. Apparently, any edits made to a saved movie file (such as adding annotations) prevent it from fast-starting when downloaded. Saving a self-contained version after all modifications solves the problem.


Following comments from the rest of the band and our agent, I popped back into iMovie and changed a few small things, then exported and uploaded again the next night. I used Apple's iTools HomePage tool to create the video pages, since it was fast and I was hosting the video on our iTools site anyway.


I burned a few different versions of the video to CD - first a data backup, then a Video CD/audio hybrid (with some audio-only song demos we'd recorded a couple of years ago on the audio portion), then a QuickTime/audio hybrid. Those were for clients who would rather watch the video on a computer or DVD player. (Having missed the DV train, of course, I don't have a DVD burner.)

<http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/2496/ vcdfaq.html>

Finally, I used my ATI Xclaim 3D Plus video card's analog video-out port to transfer the completed video (running full-screen from the QuickTime Pro player) to VHS tape, then added the audio-only song demos on the end with static title cards displaying as they play. I made the title cards in Photoshop, and simply manually switched between layers to display each song's title as it played from iTunes during recording. A bit awkward (especially since I had to do it all manually again for each new master tape), but it worked.


Unloading the Luggage -- Making the video took a lot of time, but very little expense. I have never edited video of any kind before, so I think it turned out quite well.

Surprisingly, the actual "video editing" was a small part of the procedure. Just as in real movies, preparation and post-production are much bigger pieces. Most of the work was not in the video editing, but in the sampling and conversion, and (surprisingly) in the creation of the audio track. I spent a lot of time doing other things (or sleeping) while my Mac turned one sort of file into another sort of file. I see now why people who do this for a living buy the fastest computers possible, regardless of cost.

The final video quality is not spectacular, but it is full-screen, 30 fps, and it looks like old film from the '60s (slightly washed-out colours, somewhat grainy), which is perfectly appropriate for our retro-'60s band. It also helped that the original footage, shot by a team of professionals, was so good.

My main frustrations with iMovie 1 were its lack of support for anything but DV stream video, its limited clip-tray space, its unwillingness to run on more than one monitor, and its inability to view the audio track waveforms visually, so that I could coordinate the video more precisely with the sound. (All of these shortcomings were fixed in iMovie 2, except for the multiple monitor support.) I liked the multi-level undo and the overall ease of using iMovie, compared to Strata or Premiere.

In iMovie, the video never played smoothly on my old Mac, even though it played fine in QuickTime Player after export. For that reason, and because much of my audio software doesn't work in Mac OS X (my normal environment), I worked under Mac OS 9.2.2, with virtual memory off, for the whole process. I also have 416 MB of RAM - I recommend lots of it, whether your machine is old or new.

Once I returned to Mac OS X, I discovered that iMovie 2 (which comes with Mac OS X) works rather well even on my old G3. Luckily, iMovie projects move seamlessly between iMovie 1 and 2, and between Mac OS 9 and X - you can even, it seems, open iMovie 2 projects in iMovie 1, which is impressive.


Looking Back on the Journey -- So how did it turn out? See for yourself:


Editing this, my first real video, reminds me of the joy I felt when I first got into desktop publishing 15 years ago or so and ditched Letraset forever. It was fun, but the rest of my family (not to mention the band) is probably glad I'm finished - for now.

[Derek K. Miller is a homemaker, writer, editor, Web guy, and drummer whose wife and two daughters are pleased that he finally brought the VCR and little TV back upstairs. Derek lives in Vancover, Canada, and tries to keep his weblog interesting.]



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