Taking Digital Movie Making to the Next Level

A couple of months ago, I examined Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker (WMM) software, which is included in the company's latest consumer Windows release—Windows Me. That three-part series of articles explained the basics of inputting, editing, and distributing digital video using Microsoft's free tool. But WMM is limited in many ways, especially if you use Windows Me. So let's take a look at the next-generation digital-movie tools that are available out of the box with new PCs and Apple's Macintoshes (Macs).

XP WMM


For PC users, Microsoft subtly but importantly upgraded WMM with the release of Windows XP (available now in beta and due for retail release this October). In addition to taking advantage of XP's underlying stability, the new version of WMM adds new input and output formats that make it applicable to a far wider range of uses. Specifically, XP users can input and output video in much higher resolution than in Windows Me and output video in resolutions designed specifically for the Pocket PC. Thanks to these features, you can now use this simple tool to create movies that scale from the smallest handhelds to the big TV you might have in the living room. All you need is the know-how.

In XP, you can record digital video in near-DVD quality or, more appropriately, in the same resolution as a DVD movie. This statement assumes two things: First, you must have appropriate and compatible hardware, such as an IEEE-1394 (Firewire)-based digital camcorder and a Firewire PCI card. Second, you need a decent PC with at least an 800MHz processor, 256MB of RAM, and gobs of hard-disk space. This last condition is required because WMM records near-DVD quality video in an uncompressed format (good old AVI format for you video geeks).

After you meet these conditions, you can input digital video at full resolution (720 x 480 for NTSC video). You can also output digital video in this format so that your finished movies can achieve the highest-possible quality after you add titles, transitions, and other edits. Unfortunately, you can't output to tape; perhaps a future version of the software will offer this feature. You could also consider third-party software for this task or a proprietary hardware/software combination. I'll examine these alternatives in a future column.

Another interesting benefit of WMM's XP version is its ability to output video in formats that are compatible with color Pocket PC devices. WMM supports 208 x 160 output resolution at two quality levels, which will let you put your wedding and vacation movies on the popular handhelds, where you can use them to terrorize your seatmates on cross-country flights.

Another Option: Get a Mac


If you plan to spend a lot of time making digital movies, however, the Mac might be the way to go. Apple's machines, from the tiny portable iBook to the beefy and powerful G4 PowerMac, support Firewire-based digital-video input and ship with a free copy of Apple's wonderful iMovie 2 software, which blows away WMM and just about every other PC-based movie-making package. Unlike WMM, iMovie includes a stunning array of titling options, transitions, and other professional effects. iMovie is a bit harder to learn than WMM but well worth the effort. And with iMovie, you can record back to film, which gives all recent Macs the end-to-end solution still lacking in Windows, even in XP. Apple iMovie uses Apple's QuickTime format, which is visually comparable to Windows Media Video 8.

If you have the dough, you can even record DVD movies on the top-two G4 PowerMac models, thanks to Apple's SuperDrive on those machines. This DVD-recording hardware (from Panasonic and others) is also starting to show up on Windows-based PCs, but once again Apple's software really sets the Mac offering apart. The company bundles a free copy of the jaw-dropping iDVD software with all SuperDrive-equipped Macs, and a new Mac OS X-compatible version, iDVD 2, is due in September and will offer even more features.

I can't understate this fact: The iDVD software is revolutionary in its simplicity and power, and it represents the most important sea change in the computer industry since the advent of desktop publishing. For the price of a G4 PowerMac and monitor (starting at about $3000), anyone can make professionally crafted DVD movies, complete with navigational menus and sub-menus, and, beginning with iDVD 2, animations that visually describe the underlying movies. The software is harder to explain than it is to use; it sets the digital movie-making world on its ear, and you won't find anything better on the market. And there won't be anything better, on the PC side, for the foreseeable future.

If shelling out $3000 or more for a new computer isn't in the cards, you can get started with iMovie 2 for as little as $999, the price of the lowliest iMac—a little barnburner with a 500MHz processor and 128MB of RAM. In the past, Apple took a lot of flak for its unrealistic pricing, but this year the company is fielding worthy adversaries to the Windows-based PC world across the board. As with XP-based WMM users, iMac users can simply bide their time, record QuickTime movies in the highest quality possible, and wait for the price of recordable DVD to come down. And an array of Firewire-based external hard disks ensures that Mac users will have enough space to store digital video.

Next time, we'll look at an interesting—and inexpensive—alternative to DVD recording that will let you distribute your favorite home movies on discs you can play on just about any DVD player. And best of all, the technology is available today.

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