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Making Better iMovies

If you wanted to edit video in the recent past, you needed a room full of specialized equipment and a fair amount of training and experience just to get started. Now, most what you need is probably sitting in your Applications folder. Apple’s iMovie enables anyone with a recent Macintosh to import video footage and edit it into a professional-looking movie.

In "Dipping into Digital Video" in TidBITS-615, I covered some of the basics of digital video and what to look for when buying a digital camcorder. Now I want to share some tips I picked up while writing my latest book, iMovie 2 for Macintosh: Visual QuickStart Guide. If you’re just starting to get your feet wet with digital video, these pointers will help you during shooting and when editing in iMovie.


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A Stable Working Relationship — Most people equate home video footage with the jittery movement of home movies and police pursuit shows. Except in rare circumstances, that look isn’t a matter of style: the diminutive size and weight of most camcorders make it difficult to maintain stability while filming. Mounting the camera on a tripod is your best bet for keeping the camera stationary, but a tripod is often a pain to carry and set up. Instead, maintain stability when shooting by tucking your elbows into your sides and hold the camera with both hands. Although most cameras offer digital image stabilization, which does a good job of compensating for small variations in camera movement, don’t rely on it to reduce larger tremors.

Zoom Zoom — One of the first things potential camcorder buyers do is test the product’s zoom capabilities. And why not? Unlike Hollywood movie directors, who can place a camera wherever it suits them, you may be trying to get a shot of a grizzly bear from hundreds of meters away (and, in the spirit of recommendations, I strongly encourage you to stay hundreds of meters away from grizzlies in the wild). Punching up the telephoto zoom can be the difference between fur, blur, or getting munched, for those that ignore these tips.

As you’re zooming, try to keep the motion steady and measured. The zoom control on most camcorders is pressure sensitive, so pressing hard makes the lens zoom quicker than a lighter touch. Try not to zoom in or out (or heaven forbid, both in succession) as fast as possible, unless you’re trying to nauseate your audience. If you have the opportunity, practice zooming in on your subject before you begin filming.

Also, turn off your camcorder’s digital zoom feature. Unlike optical zoom, which describes the amount the lens mechanism can zoom (usually 10 times the normal setting), digital zoom is a technique where the camera’s processor interpolates the image and enlarges the pixels to approximate a higher zoom level. In essence, the camera guesses what the higher zoomed-in image will look like, and it shows: digitally zoomed footage is highly pixelated, and it’s often hard to tell what was originally being shot. Although a 200x digital zoom sounds nifty, it’s more marketing gimmick than filmmaker’s tool. Turn if off now while you’re thinking about it, so you don’t scold yourself later when reviewing unexpectedly blurry footage.

Do You Hear What You Hear? As you’re recording, use headphones plugged into to your camera to ensure that the audio you’re capturing is the sound you expect. Any pair of headphones will do, as long as what you hear is what the camera’s microphone hears. You won’t want to begin editing your footage and realize that traffic noise drowned out the rest of your footage’s audio.

Cover Your Assets — When you get to the editing stage, you’ll want to assemble a tight movie, with no scenes that can make your audience lose interest. However, when you’re out shooting, record plenty of extra coverage. Linger at the end of scenes, and don’t stop recording when the action ends. Take a few minutes to shoot the scenery, the reactions of people around you, or objects that catch your eye but may have nothing to do with the subject of your video. You want to go into the editing stage with more than enough footage to work with, because in most cases you won’t be able to go back and reshoot something. That extra coverage can be essential when you need to add a few seconds of footage to maintain your movie’s timing and rhythm.

Dumpster Diving in iMovie — With the shooting complete, it’s time to import your footage and begin cutting together your movie. As you begin to chop, crop, and rearrange your clips, it can become difficult to know which sections were once whole in case you want to go back and try a different combination of clips. Fortunately, iMovie offers a few methods to retrieve footage. First, you’ll find yourself using iMovie’s ten levels of undo often, though remember that the counter resets when you close your iMovie project.

If you can’t undo changes, you may still be able to restore an original clip. As you make edits, iMovie records only the changes that have been applied to the original clip you imported from the camcorder – it doesn’t actually split the clip’s media file on your hard disk. For example, suppose you imported a 10-minute original clip from your camera and split it into a number of smaller clips. Now suppose you deleted one of those smaller clips, not realizing until too late that you needed it. Unlike the Finder’s Trash, you can’t open iMovie’s bin and pull out a discarded clip. Rather than reimport from the camera, select another one of the smaller clips and choose Restore Clip Media from the Advanced menu – iMovie reads the entire 10 minutes of data from the media file on the hard disk and turns that small clip into the full clip, which you can edit down to the necessary footage again. Be warned that if you use the Empty Trash command at any point, the clip is gone for good – iMovie edits the media file on your hard disk and removes the portions you threw away.

Transitions — Leave enough padding in your clips to accommodate transitions. A transition such as Cross Dissolve overlaps portions of the two clips it’s bridging in order to display both simultaneously. If the action begins immediately in the second clip, it will be partially obscured by the dissolving portion of the first clip. Leaving a few seconds of neutral footage gives you the transition effect you’re looking for without disrupting the content of the scene. If you end up with too much padding, you can always trim it out later.

Speaking of transitions, don’t go crazy adding every type of transition you can find (and there are plenty – in addition to Apple’s, check out GeeThree’s Slick Transitions and Effects). In most situations, you’ll probably use Cross Dissolve, Fade In, Fade Out, and Overlap. Although others can be appropriate in context, using too many different flashy transitions in one project tends to distract from the movie itself. It’s the same principle as using too many fonts in a word processing document: with more than a few on the page, it no longer matters what the words say.


Sizing Up Titles — From an ease-of-use standpoint, the slider that determines a title’s font size is wonderfully simple: slide left to reduce the size, slide right to increase the size. However, this approach can be maddeningly frustrating if you want precision. It doesn’t make it any easier that the longer your title, the smaller the text will appear, even at the largest font size. Also, iMovie’s rough title preview can be deceptive about text sizes and where longer phrases are wrapped to the next line. So, apply your titles to a few dummy clips that you can export back to tape and preview on a television to see exactly how the title will appear.

Using Music Tracks — iMovie features what must have once seemed like an ingenious method of adding music to your movie: you can record song tracks from an audio CD directly into the program. You must start playing the song and record it as it plays, much the way you import video from your camcorder’s videotape. However, with MP3 music files and iTunes, this technique has become archaic. Instead, use iTunes to extract music as MP3 files, then use iMovie’s Import command to add the song to your movie. If you want the highest quality audio (which takes up significantly more disk space), use iTunes to extract the song in AIFF format; that’s how iMovie’s built-in audio recorder stores music, but iTunes provides a far superior interface to getting it done.

The iMovie Effect — Once you start editing in iMovie, you’ll never watch movies or television the same again. You see scenes in terms of shots, angles, lighting, audio effects, and visual narrative. My wife, after using iMovie only a few times, proved this to me when we watched the online trailer for the movie The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s a great work of editing, but I didn’t realize how good until Kim casually pointed out that each shot ended in a cross-dissolve transition, except when the main characters were on screen, which used jump cuts to show another shot of the actor before dissolving. If that doesn’t demonstrate how iMovie’s ease of use and editing power can get into your brain, I don’t know what can.


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