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iMovie 4 in the Viewfinder

When I wrote about iMovie 3 last year, I was less than enamored of Apple’s digital video editor (see "iMovie 3 Tips and Gotchas" in TidBITS-697). It was slow, buggy, and frustrating. Apple released iMovie 4 shortly after this year’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco, and I’m happy to report that the new version is much improved – not to the extent that I’d prefer, but iMovie no longer feels like it was rushed out the door.



Peachpit Press has just released the third edition of my book on iMovie, which not only includes almost 100 new pages of material (thanks in part to the addition of iDVD coverage) but also has the longest title of anything I’ve published: iMovie 4 & iDVD 4 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (I get tired just typing it). In this short article, I want to share some worthwhile tips and iMovie improvements. I’ll look at iDVD 4 in a future article.

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Direct Trimming — iMovie gains an important structural overhaul in version 4. Apple calls it Direct Trimming, but video editors know it better as non-destructive editing. In earlier versions of iMovie, you trimmed a video clip by lopping off portions that you didn’t need – the last 10 seconds, for example. If you later realized you need to use that footage, the only ways to retrieve it were to use Undo (but only if the edit was made within the last 10 actions), or by restoring the entire clip to its original state.

With Direct Trimming, that deleted footage is always available. If you decide you want your clip to be two seconds longer, you simply grab the right edge of the clip in the Timeline Viewer and drag it to the right to expose the footage you want. When trimming clips down, just drag the right edge of the clip and move it to the left, hiding the frames you wish to remove from view.

The only exception to the advantages of Direct Trimming is if you empty iMovie’s trash: iMovie rewrites the media files stored on disk to match the edits you’ve applied, deleting the footage you’ve hidden. (I recommend not emptying iMovie’s trash at any point while editing; if you need more disk space, you’re better off buying an inexpensive external FireWire hard disk and moving your project there.)

Keystrokes Make Editing Easier — Using keystroke shortcuts doesn’t sound like a sexy new feature, but I rely on them to speed up my work and reduce the amount of mousing I do. iMovie 4 added a few keystroke shortcuts that I use constantly.

  • Press Command-E to switch between the Clip Viewer and the Timeline Viewer (the two timeline views that occupy the same space at the bottom of iMovie’s screen).

  • In the Timeline Viewer, press Command-Option-P to scroll to where the playhead is located, or if a clip is selected but currently off-screen, press Command-Option-S to jump to that clip.

  • Also in the Timeline Viewer, press Command-Option-Z with a clip selected to zoom in on just that clip so that it takes up most of the timeline. For a quick way to zoom out to see your entire movie without leaving the keyboard, press Command-A to select all clips in the timeline, then Command-Option-Z to zoom to the selection.

  • Press Command-B to create a bookmark, a marker used only for your own navigational use. Press Command-[ or Command-] (the bracket keys) to jump to the previous or next bookmark.

  • iMovie 4 features timeline snapping: as you drag the playhead through the movie, it snaps to the nearest edit point (helpful when matching audio and video clips). You can turn this option on or off in iMovie’s preferences, but there’s a better way: keep it turned off in the preferences, and hold down Shift as you drag the playhead to temporarily enable snapping.

Catch a Wave(form) — iMovie 4 finally adds visible waveforms to audio clips, so you can see the peaks and valleys in the sound. Waveforms are especially helpful when you’re trying to line up a song or sound clip to match action in the video. To turn on waveforms, go to iMovie’s preferences and enable the Show Audio Track Waveforms checkbox. It helps to zoom in on a clip to see more waveform detail. You can also press the up and down arrow keys in a selected audio clip to raise or lower waveforms temporarily to see them better (this changes only the waveform display, not the audio levels themselves).

Unfortunately, you can only view waveforms on audio clips, not video clips, even though in iMovie the video clips also include an audio track. To view the waveforms for a video clip, you must extract the audio (press Command-J with a clip selected, or choose Extract Audio from the Advanced menu).

iMovie 4 also added the capability to scrub audio, which plays audio as you drag the playhead, not just when you play back the movie in real time. Hold down Option, then drag the playhead to scrub. However, this feature is such a performance drain that I find it unusable: the playhead lags behind where I’ve dragged.

Sharing Is Caring — One last nifty feature before I roll credits is the capability to export selected clips from your movie, rather than the entire movie itself. In earlier versions, if I wanted to export a specific scene to a QuickTime movie, for example, I needed to move all the other clips off the timeline before exporting, a real hassle. In iMovie 4, simply select the clips you want to export, choose Share from the File menu (or press Command-Shift-E), and click the checkbox labeled Share Selected Clips Only.

A Word about Performance — I mentioned earlier that iMovie 4 is improved, but not as much as I’d like. One thing about iMovie (and, it seems, all of the iLife applications except iTunes) is that they greatly benefit from faster hardware, but even then performance can vary between similar Macs. Some people export movies with no problems, while others tear their hair out due to audio problems or stuttery playback. In my experience, iMovie 4 has been quite stable on my 1.25 GHz PowerBook G4, though it’s a dog when running on my older 400 MHz PowerBook G4 Titanium.

I can’t offer a sure-fire solution, but I can point you to a great resource: Dan Slagel’s "Unofficial" iMovie FAQ. For other information, I also maintain a companion Web site to my book, where you’ll find iMovie-related news, tips, and links to other resources. And lastly, you might want to check out a recent TidBITS Talk thread, which was spurred by the latest iMovie 4.0.1 update.





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