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Taking Home Video to the Next Level

I'm between family vacations as I write this, and because we recently purchased a new Sony widescreen camcorder to replace the old Canon model that died on us late last year, I've been experimenting with importing and editing video for the first time in a while. For some reason, Windows Movie Maker 2.x doesn't natively support the widescreen DV format that the Sony camera uses—it squashes the video into a more typical 4:3 format that makes everyone look skinny and tall—so I've been forced to look at other tools. On the PC, Adobe's inexpensive but powerful Premiere Elements 1.0 works correctly, keeping the video's native aspect ratio. But for the past few days, I've been using Apple Computer's excellent iMovie HD, part of its iLife '05 suite, to import and edit the video from our last trip. And it's been a blast.

Apple's software—predictably—is simple if you know how to use it, but it's infuriating if you don't. There are lots of little things to know about in iMovie HD. For example, you can't add a title to a scene that's connected in any way to a transition, although you can later add a transition to a scene that has a title. That little problem had me flummoxed for over an hour last night. But iMovie HD natively supports 16:9 and 16:10 DV video, in addition to the more typical 4:3 style, and it will also output (or share, in Apple terminology) your edited videos in the correct format. It's a classy little program with support for most major video formats, including high-quality H.264, the latest MPEG-4 version.

Editing Fun
I won't bore you with the details of the editing itself: I believe in simple cross-fades between clips, along with a fade-in at the beginning of the movie and a fade-out at the end. Nothing fancy for the Thurrott family memories, thank you very much. But as I was playing around with some of the titles and effects, it occurred to me that you could really go nuts and do something fun. So, I did.

For one of our short vacation movies, I decided to create an introduction and end-title sequence that emulates the Star Wars movies. That is, the beginning opens with a scrolling text crawl set over a star field and the bombastic Star Wars music. The scrolling text, of course, is based on the text crawl in Star Wars: Episode III but edited with the names of the people in our family. At the end of the video, there's a sudden burst of Star Wars music as the end credits—such as they are—scroll by. It's not perfect. But man, it's close to perfect.

OK, you can't do all this with the stock iMovie HD. I grabbed a commercial add-on pack called Gee Three Slick Video Effects 5 that adds various titles and effects to iMovie, including the Perspective title, which perfectly emulates the Star Wars text crawl. And I hunted around for a good star-field graphic, which I then had to edit into the right size and dimensions.

It was worth it. My son laughed out loud when he saw the movie, because it opens exactly like a Star Wars film. I don't recommend that you do this or anything similar for every home movie, but it's a fun little diversion that helps build movie-editing skills. Now if I could just figure out how to edit lightsabers into my home movies, maybe I'd really be on to something.

Getting More Professional
Home video cameras are great fun, and they allow you to capture family memories for future enjoyment. But most of today's consumer-grade camcorders offer various quality concessions in order to keep the price down. So be sure to perform a hands-on test before buying. The most problematic area I've seen isn't video quality but audio quality (although movies created on today's camcorders will likely look horrible on the HDTV sets of tomorrow). That's because camera makers put the microphone right on the unit's body, and it almost invariably captures a low-grade humming sound as part of the audio track.

The only way to overcome this problem is to purchase an add-on microphone. Most camcorders support such an addition through a shoe interface on the top of the device. And these microphones are typically pretty cheap, given the immediate and obvious audio improvements—usually in the $50-to-$100 range. I grabbed a gun-zoom microphone for my Sony camcorder. This device offers three settings: Off, in which case the camera uses its own built-in microphone; Zoom, in which the audio field moves as you zoom in and out, letting you capture the audio that's pertinent to the subject you're shooting; and Gun, in which the audio field remains stable and doesn't try to zoom with the lens.

You might also consider various add-on lenses, depending on your needs. Because I'll be using this camcorder to record speakers at trade shows, I also purchased a 37mm tele-conversion lens, which mounts on the front of the camcorder via a supplied adapter ring. This lens improves the camcorder's optical zoom by a factor of two, letting me really zoom in on distant objects without using jaggedy digital zoom. Sony and other camcorder companies also sell other types of lenses, including wide-angle lenses. Also, you should consider some polarizing filters, which will bolster picture contrast and protect your camera's lens from dust.

Dive In!
Finally, if you plan to go into the water, why not bring your camcorder? Many makers sell underwater kits that let you film in and around the water without any worries about damaging your camcorder's sensitive electronics. Sony's unit is called a Handycam Sports Pack, and although it's expensive at $200, it does let you take your camera underwater to a depth of 16 feet. If I ever find myself in a position to scuba dive, I might just get one.

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