Become a Digital Filmmaker

For the most part, people who dabble in digital-media tasks such as digital photography and digital music do so because they want to. The results are obvious and nearly immediate, and you don't have to be a computer wizard to make the technology work. Digital moviemaking, alas, isn't so simple. You need to understand a blistering array of terminologies and technologies, and the process is time consuming. At some point, you're going to need to import video or export an edited movie, and these tasks often take quite a bit of time, even on modern PC hardware. So how do you get started?

In this article, I'll assume that you have some video source, probably a home movie, which you'd like to import into the PC, edit in some way, then share—either through DVD, CD, or the Internet. In addition to the subjects I'll outline here, of course, you'll probably need to deal with other details that are beyond the scope of this article. For example, you'll want to become familiar with your camcorder and take advantage of features that can improve the quality of the source movie you'll create. Image stabilization, for example, prevents that nausea-inducing "shaky hand" effect you see so often in home movies. With that preliminary caveat out of the way, let's look at the hardware you'll need.

You need a fairly high-end PC. I don't recommend doing video work on anything slower than a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 or 1.5GHz Pentium-M processor, although your mileage may vary. Video work will use whatever RAM you throw at it, and because memory is cheap these days, go ahead and splurge. All of my systems have at least 1GB of RAM. In addition to a camcorder (or other video source, such as a VHS player or TV), you'll need a method for connecting that video source to the PC. For digital sources, such as a Mini-DV camcorder, you'll need a FireWire (IEEE-1394) port. If you don't have one, you can add a FireWire expansion card. For analog sources, such as the aforementioned VHS player or TV, you'll need some kind of analog-to-digital converter device.

I use an internal card/device combination that offers both analog and digital video inputs, but you can accomplish the same functionality is several ways, including low-quality external USB-based boxes (which I don't recommend). If you just want to experiment, you can also use most Web cameras as video sources. Don't have a video source? No problem: Just import some digital photos and make an animated slideshow instead.

If you want to share movies on a DVD or CD, you'll need the appropriate recordable optical drive. This is another area in which PC economics have helped: You can find decent recordable DVD drives for just a bit over $100 these days, and they can write to most popular recordable DVD formats, including DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW, as well as CD-R and CD-RW.

On the software side of the equation, you'll need a package that can detect and connect to the hardware device you're using to acquire video. Windows XP users have it easy: You can download an excellent and free application called Windows Movie Maker 2 (WMM2) that handles almost all video acquisition, editing, and sharing tasks you'll perform. However, WMM2 doesn't yet offer a way to write to DVD, so you'll need to look elsewhere for that functionality.

Other users, or XP users who want to make DVD movies, will need to look to third-party tools. You have many options—some good, some not so good. Two products I use and recommend, however, are Roxio Easy Media Creator and Sonic MyDVD 5.0. These products suites support a wide range of digital-media tasks. Both offer excellent, easy-to-use, entry-level movie editing and DVD movie-making capabilities.

Acquiring Movies
So, you're ready to get started. The logical starting point is movie acquisition, in which you copy a chunk of video from the video source to your PC. How you proceed depends largely on which type of video source you're using. The common element among most of these approaches is that the length of time necessary to copy the source video will depend on the actual length of the source video. That is, a 30-minute video will take at least 30 minutes to copy to the PC, because the software must "play" the video to record it. The process might take even longer, if you factor in post-acquisition variables such as encoding, in which the software writes a copied movie to a certain format.

Video files are just like any other data file: They contain content that's stored in a certain fashion. Microsoft has created its own video format, Windows Media Video (WMV), but you're just as likely to run into more mainstream formats while you're making your videos. DVD movies use the MPEG-2 format, and digital camcorders use the DV format (sometimes called AVI-DV). The format you choose depends on your needs. The AVI-DV format offers the best quality but consumes massive amounts of disk space. WMV offers image quality that's almost as good, and it takes up much less disk space. However, because WMV is a compressed video format and must be converted—or transcoded, in video-speak—to MPEG-2 format before being written to DVD, you might experience quality concerns and slow performance because of the time it takes to transcode. MPEG-2 is a low-quality format, but it takes up little disk space and offers the best compatibility with DVD movies.

Your choice of software might also limit your choice of formats. WMM2, for example, supports WMV and AVI-DV but not MPEG-2. However, because this free software contains excellent editing tools, and because most DVD-making applications (including the two I recommended above) support WMV, I still recommend WMM2. Plus, we're talking about home movies here: Chances are your source video isn't in crystal-clear high definition to begin with, anyway.

Let's look at the various ways you might acquire video.

Digital Video Acquisition
For digital camcorders, you'll connect your camcorder to the PC with a FireWire cable. Digital sources are nice because most video packages, including WMM2, can electronically control the camera, if you desire. You can set up the application to automatically record whatever content is on the tape, and the software will stop recording when it reaches the end of the content. Therefore, you can leave the room and get other work done while the software imports video.

Analog Video Acquisition
Analog video sources aren't as friendly as digital video sources. Analog video acquisition is the modern equivalent of a VHS-to-VHS dub: You must manually start the tape, navigate to the beginning of content, then stick around to baby-sit the process unless you know the exact length of the video. You have to manually stop the recording when the content ends. Yeah, it's exactly as much fun as it sounds.

Digital Photo and Preacquired Video Acquisition
Most video editing packages, including WMM2, also let you import content directly from your hard disk. So, if you have a video on your system you'd like to edit, or a set of photographs you'd like to animate into a slideshow, you can simply import those files manually into WMM2 or another movie editor.

These files, including the source video you imported, are collectively called source material. You can also import music, such as MP3 or Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, which can be used as a background for a movie title or photo slideshow.

Editing Movies
Most modern video-editing packages, such as WMM2, offer two editing modes—Storyboard view and Timeline view—but only the Timeline view is of any real value when you're editing. The Timeline view lets you drag source material down to a timeline that separates video content, audio and music, and titles into separate tracks. This segregation makes the content easier to work with. Source material in the timeline is typically split into clips, which are bits of video that are typically considered individual scenes. You navigate through the timeline by using a pointer that moves through the timeline as the movie plays.

Video editing can be a difficult chore. Unless you're experimenting, you should keep it simple. Consider a basic home movie—for example, of a birthday party or other family event. Your goal typically won't be to add Hollywood-style swipes and special effects. Instead, you'll typically want to edit out the bad parts, smooth the abrupt transitions, then share the resulting movie. Assuming you have this kind of goal, you'll need a few basic skills. First, you'll need to learn how to arrange video clips and other source material in your editor's timeline. Then, you'll need to split the movie at appropriate points in order to remove undesirable bits. In WMM2, you use the Split command to split a currently selected clip at the current pointer position. (You can also combine two concurrent clips.)

Splitting a Clip

Step 1: After you drag a video clip to the timeline, locate the position at which you'd like to cut content. In WMM2, you split the clip by choosing Split from the Clip menu.

Step 2: Locate the end point of the content you'd like to cut, then choose Split from the Clip menu again. You've created a new clip.

Step 3: Select the unwanted clip and delete it.

Step 4: Smooth the break between the other clips by adding a transition.

Let's say you've acquired a recorded TV show, and you'd like to edit out the commercials and resave the show in its edited format. After dragging the show to the timeline, you would navigate—or scrub—through the timeline until you hit the first commercial. Then, using the editor's positioning tools, you would move the pointer to the exact moment at which the show ends and the commercial begins, then split the clip. Next, find the end of the commercial set, and perform the same action, then delete the new clip you've created (the one that's just commercials). To ease the break, you might add one of your editor's pre-made transitions, preferably an unobtrusive one such as a fade or simple wipe. For a step-by-step look at this process, see the sidebar "Splitting a Clip." When you're finished editing, you can add simple flourishes such as a title overlay or movie entry and exit fades, if desired.

Editing Photo Slideshows
If you're making a photo slideshow, you essentially want to drag all the photos into the timeline and create a transition of some sort between each of them. You can also add a musical background by dragging an audio file into the timeline. However, a more elegant solution is available in Microsoft's excellent Plus! Digital Media Edition ($20), which includes a terrific utility called Plus! Photo Story. This handy application automatically combines photos and music into high-quality slideshows that offer stunning animated pans and transitions. Each photo moves across the screen or zooms in or out, in addition to transitioning to the next photo. The effect is mesmerizing. And the latest version even offers a handy write-to-CD option.

Sharing Movies
Most people aren't going to acquire and edit movies just for the heck of it. No, you're going to want to share your latest creation with the world. You have various options for doing just that, but most people are going to want to create a DVD movie, which they can share with anyone who has a DVD player—not just with other computer users. DVD movie-making packages have come a long way since the early days, thanks to Apple Computer's trendsetting iDVD product, which is available only for the Macintosh. Now, you can add animated menus, submenus, movie chapters, and a host of other advanced features.

DVD movies written to DVD-R formatted disks currently offer the best compatibility with consumer-grade DVD players, so you should probably use that format if your DVD recorder supports it. Otherwise, the DVD+R format is starting to catch up, particulalry among newer players.

Look Further
A single article simply can't do justice to a topic as complex as digital video editing. Indeed, entire books have been written about the topic. However, at Connected Home Media, we've been covering the topic for years, so please refer to some of the following articles for more information.

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