Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 33 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

Building a Holiday DVD

Now that Adam lives in Ithaca, the only time we see each other in person is at January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco. When we met up for the last show, at a small gathering at Joe Kissell’s apartment, one of the first things he said was, "Man, you’ve ruined it for the rest of us!"

What had I done? He pointed to Joe’s mantelpiece, which had a copy of the beautiful, professionally printed Christmas card that he and Tonya sent out. And then I knew: my family’s holiday "card" this year was a DVD containing video, music, and still photos from the previous year. I had raised the geek bar.

What Adam didn’t know was that the DVD almost didn’t happen. I started later than I should have, and even though I’ve made several videos and DVDs while writing three editions of my book on iMovie and iDVD, I made the classic mistake of thinking, "I’ve done this before… it’ll go quickly!" The truth, of course, is that no multimedia project (or home repair project, or writing assignment, for that matter) ever goes as fast as you think it will. I didn’t keep track of my time, but I estimate the project took 30 to 40 hours of work over a three-week period, compressed to try to finish it before Christmas.


Whether you’re creating a holiday DVD, a movie chronicling your most recent vacation, or the highlights of a child’s birthday party, the following chronicle of my experience should help you create your own DVD project more easily and effectively.

Gather Material — Even though we were assembling a project packed with multimedia elements, my wife Kim and I started by writing a traditional letter that touched on the year’s highlights (my sister’s wedding, a trip to Arizona, etc.). From that basic script I created an outline in Microsoft Word listing the highlights and noting any corresponding video or still photos I already possessed, and whether I needed to shoot any new footage.

For example, I ended up shooting some new video of Kim building a ceramic bowl (a new hobby of hers). Also, I wanted to summarize some of my work accomplishments, so I used Boinx Software’s iStopMotion to create a movie of me working at the computer while books and lots of coffee cups magically appear around me. (You can view the clip at the second URL below.)



The video footage taken throughout the year, such as from our Arizona vacation, already existed in iMovie. I assumed that our viewers didn’t want to sit through a holiday DVD that lasted several hours, so I chose a few representative scenes and exported them from iMovie as DV-formatted QuickTime files. (Here’s a tip: You don’t have to export an entire movie in iMovie 4 or iMovie HD. Command-click the clips you want to export, and then chose Share from the File menu. Make sure you mark the checkbox labeled "Share selected clips only," then click the QuickTime icon, and choose Full Quality DV – or a different format, but Full Quality DV is good for importing into Final Cut Express – from the "Compress movie for" popup menu.)

For still pictures, I launched iPhoto and built a new photo album containing the photos I wanted to include. I also knew I wanted to create some background music in GarageBand, but since the music would depend on the length of the scenes in the video, I saved the composing part of my project for later.

Managing Assets and Planning — With the raw materials assembled, I was ready to edit. My original plan was to use iMovie, but I quickly realized that iMovie didn’t offer the flexibility I’d need: I was pulling together a growing number of assets (video clips, digital still photos, background music, a voiceover narration), and I wanted to create a few simple special effects (photos overlaid on the video). Although iMovie could have handled the job – with the help of one of GeeThree’s Slick volumes of iMovie plug-ins for the special effects – I decided to edit the movie in Final Cut Express instead for that and a number of other reasons.



The big advantage of using Final Cut Express was that I wouldn’t be limited by iMovie’s one video track and two audio tracks. Final Cut Express offers up to 99 video and 99 audio tracks, which let me arrange layers on top of one another. For example, in the scene from the completed movie where books and coffee cups appear, I added two magazine covers that pop up, complete with drop shadows.

< timeline.jpg>

I also chose Final Cut Express because I would be dealing with lots of still photos. I wanted the camera to appear to be moving slowing across them, an effect called "pan and zoom" but more commonly referred to by Apple as the Ken Burns Effect. Unfortunately, although the Ken Burns Effect is easy to implement in iMovie, its output is erratic (even in the current iMovie HD). There’s no way to control how fast the effect happens, so you frequently end up with a pan that starts quickly and then slows down, or vice-versa. Implementing a pan and zoom effect in Final Cut Express is slightly more involved, but the results are consistent. If I had stuck with iMovie, I probably would have used a third-party utility such as LQ Graphic’s Photo to Movie ($50) or Granted Software’s Still Life ($25) to create my pans, which could be imported into iMovie as DV-formatted QuickTime files.



Since Final Cut Express doesn’t enjoy the inter-application integration shared between iMovie and iPhoto, switching to Final Cut Express required me to go back into iPhoto and export my images as JPEG files. In fact, I ended up going back to iPhoto several times for more photos as the project progressed, requiring more exporting. Fortunately, Final Cut Express makes it easy to keep track of your assets by creating bins in the Browser window. iMovie’s counterpart, the Shelf, stores only video files. (Actually, it can also store photos, but because the Shelf uses the same work area as the Photos pane, you must drag photos first to the Timeline, not directly to the Shelf). I created several bins for differently themed photos in Final Cut Express, which could be collapsed in a list view and put out of sight when I didn’t need them.

Remember that by this point I hadn’t begun editing clips at all; I had only pulled together the assets. So, the first lesson is to think ahead: gather your materials and anticipate what you’ll need, so you don’t end up with a half-finished project and the realization that you need to switch back into collection mode. In this case, I had my outline as a guide and a rough idea in my head of what might prove challenging. You might find it equally helpful to create rough storyboards highlighting each scene. If I had jumped headlong into editing the movie before thinking through what would come up later, I might still be working on the project.

Building the Movie — Before editing a frame of video, I had to perform a final edit on the script and make sure it was done – a concept that’s often alien to Hollywood, but terribly important when our "letter" served as the foundation of the video. Using a MacMice MicFlex USB microphone, Kim and I recorded the narration directly into Final Cut Express using the Voice Over tool. You’d think that reading from prepared text into a microphone would be easy, but it actually took us a couple of hours to get it right. Having never done an extended voiceover, I was surprised how speed, inflection, and enunciation can vary so much while recording.


The narration also dictated how much video and photography to include. Playing it back a few times also gave us a chance to see if our movie would be too long; how much time would someone want to spend with it? 15 minutes? 10? The initial reading turned out to be a bit less than 6 minutes, which seemed reasonable.

Finally, it was time to add the visuals. As I’d learned from experience, I just tossed the footage and still photos in without messing with timing, titles, or transitions. It’s easy to get sidetracked making the opening sequence just right, but resist that urge.

Based on the narration, it was easy to tailor the video to the different thematic sections (introduction, working lives, friends and family, and best wishes for 2005). The time-lapse movie created with iStopMotion, for example, was about 12 seconds in duration, which in context seemed to be plodding. Speeding up the footage 50 percent (since it was time-lapse, the speed change didn’t look awkward as normal footage would) maintained a more active pace, and freed up some time in that section to create the superimposed the magazine covers. Though I had to choose which clips to use in the end, having the framework of the narration made the initial editing process feel like a fill-in-the-blanks exercise.

That’s also where my choice of Final Cut Express came in handy. In a section where I needed exactly 10 seconds of video, say, I could set the In and Out points (which define the section of the video clip that’s used) and then "roll" through the clip to find the best 10 seconds. In iMovie, I would have had to adjust the beginning and end points of the clip separately to find the sequence I wanted and then make sure it occupied 10 seconds. Final Cut Express, on the other hand, offers a Roll tool that keeps the 10 second window constant and, in essence, plays the footage behind it.

With the rough cut nailed down, I then went back through and fine-tuned the movie: adding transitions where needed, applying pan and zoom to the still photos, and creating titles for each section. Titles, especially, are better handled in Final Cut Express, where there are more controls for setting type size and placing the words on the screen.

Finally, I turned toward background music, most of which I built in GarageBand using Apple Loops (I’m not sufficiently adept with real-world instruments to record my own playing). Again, knowing the lengths of each section helped define the duration of the music and where to bring in other virtual instruments to highlight what was happening onscreen.

The only frustration I had with GarageBand was that you can only export your compositions by sending them to iTunes first, and then locating the AIFF-formatted audio file on the hard disk before dragging it into my movie. Final Cut Express HD, the current version, now includes Apple’s Soundtrack application for working with background music; I was using Final Cut Express 2.0. I haven’t had a chance to use Soundtrack, but it looks as if it would have made my music process easier.

< soundtrack.html>

(To see the final version of the Jeff Works section of the video, click the URL below, a 4.3 MB QuickTime movie. And remember that this was made with far-flung relatives in mind, who don’t keep up with my work life on a regular basis, so I apologize if it sounds like I’m gloating.)


Creating the DVD — With the movie completed, it was time to turn to the DVD. One advantage of using iMovie in this case would have been its great Create iDVD Project button, which packages everything up nicely, launches iDVD, and creates a new project all ready for tweaking. Instead, coming from Final Cut Express, I exported the movie by choosing QuickTime Movie from the Export submenu of the File menu. Then I launched iDVD and saved the project with a custom name.

iDVD offers plenty of beautiful templates to choose from, but I had created my own background image, so I chose a simple theme without any motion elements. To add my movie, I simply dragged it from the Finder to iDVD’s editing screen.

To change the background image, I opened the Customize drawer, switched to the Settings pane, and then dragged my JPEG image file from the Finder to the Background well. The rest of my time in iDVD was spent twiddling with the screen’s title font and color, choosing a border for the button one clicked to play the movie, and positioning those elements.

I also created a slideshow in iDVD by clicking the Slideshow button, and then dragging the collection of digital still photos from the Finder to the Slideshow editing screen. Since several people receiving the disc own computers, I made a point to enable the checkbox labeled Add files to DVD-ROM in case they wanted high-resolution versions to add to their own photo libraries. A DVD disc holds roughly 4.7 GB of data, and my little 6 minute movie only took up a little over 1 GB, so I had plenty of room for dozens of photos.

Burning the project to a DVD-R disc took only about an hour, since it didn’t contain much data. Then I tested the disc on as many DVD players as I could find: every DVD-equipped computer in the house and the DVD player connected to our television.

Duplication and Distribution — The last steps were to make several copies of the first disc, package them up, and mail them out. I connected an external LaCie d2 DVD+/-RW burner to my PowerBook and used Roxio’s Toast 6 Titanium to create duplicates. Having the added drive sped up the process slightly by keeping the original in the PowerBook’s SuperDrive, so I didn’t have to keep swapping it out for a new blank disc for each copy. The 16x speed of the LaCie drive was also a plus. If you have only one drive, you can use Toast or Disk Utility to create a disc image from the original and use that as the source for burning duplicates. iDVD 5 now includes the capability to create a disc image directly from iDVD without burning a physical disc (choose Save As Disc Image from the File menu).

< pid=10548>

< index.jhtml>

As the discs came out of the burner, I affixed custom-designed labels created with Smile On My Mac’s disclabel software. Normally I’m hesitant about disc labels; if one comes off in a slot-loading computer drive, you could be in for a hefty repair bill. However, these DVDs were more than likely all destined for tray-loading DVD players. Besides, have you seen my handwriting? Making something using disclabel was definitely the wise choice.


The last task was to buy cardboard disc envelopes that could be mailed without using a jewel case, which would have added weight and bulk and postage costs.

Speaking of price, this last push revealed a detail I failed to account for at the beginning of the process. Discs, labels, mailers, and postage add up (as did the two ink cartridges I need to buy for my inkjet printer – boy are those things expensive!). I estimate it cost me about $4 per disc (largely due to the emergency ink refill, so around $2 per disc without that expense). If price had been a major factor, I may not have embarked on the DVD project in favor of a nicely printed postcard.

But this project wasn’t one based on price. We were able to send a more vivid greeting to family members as far away as South Africa, and got some good feedback in return. In fact, while talking with Adam in January, he told me that his son Tristan ended up watching the video several times. Who would have thought that a holiday card would be a repeat experience?

Now, it’s time to start planning for next year’s DVD. Starting the project in April just might give me enough lead time.

PayBITS: Will Jeff’s experiences help you plan your next

video editing project? Thank him with a few bucks via PayBITS!


Read more about PayBITS: <>

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.