New Features Make Digital Video Editor Ready

SAN FRANCISCO (08/29/2000) - There's an axiom in Hollywood: Whether it's a copy of a video tape, a film transfer, or a script, quality goes down with each generation. The movie is never as good as the book, the film is never as clever as the pitch, and the sequel is always inferior to the original.

I'm glad to report that at least in this respect, Apple Computer Inc.'s iMovie isn't following the entertainment industry's example. And while the program is no longer free (although it is bundled with all desktop Macs), iMovie 2's new capabilities more than justify its US$49 price tag.

Marquee Features

When you first launch iMovie 2, you might think that not much has changed. The interface still takes over the desktop -- if you use Application Switcher to go to the Finder, you won't be able to see the desktop unless you hide iMovie first. The interface is still divided into three primary zones: the Marquee, where you view video; the Clip Shelf, where you store your clips; and the Timeline Viewer, a horizontally scrolling panel where you assemble clips and audio to make a movie.

The Timeline Viewer, although it looks remarkably similar to the Audio Viewer in iMovie 1, is very different functionally. You can change the time scale of the Viewer so that even tiny clips are easy to discern, and each clip now includes a picture, so you can easily distinguish one clip from another. There are still two audio tracks, but now they can contain an unlimited number of audio clips, either layered or in succession. Every media element is displayed in proper time scale -- even sound effects fill exactly the amount of space in the timeline as it takes for them to play -- and the new motion-speed slider in the Timeline Viewer lets you adjust a clip's playback speed.

Reversal of Fortune: Visual effects may make for cool eye candy, but their real power is their ability to enhance a shot or create missing shots. In this example, I had a video clip of moving toward my son to kiss him good night, but I didn't have footage of moving away afterward. Using the new Reverse Clip command, I copied the clip and then reversed the copy, shown here selected in the timeline.

You can even edit sound -- cut audio into smaller clips, layer sound, blend one sound into another (using transitions, of course), and set sound fades and durations for each clip.

Like a lot of iMovie 2's new functionality, this feature isn't immediately obvious: you get to it either by selecting Get Clip Info in the File menu or by double-clicking on a clip (yes, you can still set audio fades and audio levels directly in the Timeline Viewer, but you can't set fade duration). By the way, the Clip Info dialog box also gives you the name of the clip file in the Media folder, even if you've given the clip a new name inside iMovie.

With iMovie 2, the upgrade is in the details; Apple has added or enhanced hundreds of features. Unfortunately, accessing some of the new features is a matter of trial and error. It wasn't until I tried to drag a clip back to the Clip Shelf from the Timeline Viewer that I discovered that you can open dead space in the middle of a movie, effectively adding blackouts between clips. I also stumbled upon a feature downgrade: you can no longer drag clips back to the Clip Shelf from the Timeline Viewer. Instead, you need to toggle to the Clip Viewer to move clips back to the shelf. This is especially annoying if the Timeline Viewer is your preferred area for editing footage.

On the Menu

If the changes in the Timeline Viewer aren't enough for you, a quick tour of iMovie 2's menus will reveal a wealth of new capabilities. iMovie veterans will love the new Create Still Clip option -- it grabs the frame displayed in the marquee and turns it into a static five-second clip in the Clip Shelf, a process that used to take several steps.

But most of iMovie's flashiest capabilities are stored in the new Advanced menu. Chief among these is the Paste Over At Playhead command, which lets you insert one video clip inside another ("add an insert edit," in video-editing par-lance), overwriting the video for the portion of the clip inserted but keeping the original clip's audio intact. This allows an iMovie maker to add a steady stream of shot changes while a narrator continues to talk in the background, and then reconnect the narrator and his voice at the end of the clip.

Speaking of extracted audio, another important new feature is the ability to extract audio from a video clip. This happens automatically when you do an insert edit, but you can also extract audio from a video clip as a separate action. You can then edit the audio clip as you would any other. And you can "lock" any audio clip at any point to ensure audio and video stay in sync.

Reverse Clip does exactly what its name implies -- takes the selected clip and reverses it. And while this will no doubt result in hundreds of home movies of dogs jumping backward through hoops, its real power is the ability to create missing sequences, such as zooming out when all you have is a zooming-in shot. The problem is that once a clip is reversed, it's impossible to crop it accurately. When you attempt to crop the end of the clip, iMovie 2 cuts the footage outside the cropping markers -- not inside, as with a normal clip.

Need the Info: A well-hidden new feature of iMovie 2 is the Clip Info dialog box. It displays not only the clip name but also the name of the clip file in the media folder. Inexplicably, this dialog box can also set fade-in and -out duration for a single clip.

Luckily, the Advanced menu offers a panic button in the form of the Restore Media option. If you've taken a clip and split it, Restore Media can rejoin the two clips, no matter how many actions you've taken since splitting them. Of course, if you've cut a clip into several smaller clips and renamed them, Restore Media will reintegrate all the cuts into the original clip (unless you've deleted some of them). In a complex edit, that can get confusing.

No More Drawers

Perhaps the most maligned feature of iMovie 1 was the Clip Shelf, which let you store clips in a maximum of 12 slots. (Apple's justification for limiting the number of wells was simplicity: apparently, scroll bars were too complex for beginning users.) I'm delighted to report that the company has added scroll bars to the Clip Shelf. Now you can store as many clips as you have space for on your hard drive. Unfortunately, the way the Clip Shelf manages this space can get pretty confusing: when you edit clips, iMovie places them in seemingly random locations on the Clip Shelf. This can make keeping your clips in neat little groups nearly impossible.

In iMovie 2, the Clip Shelf no longer uses a drawer to hold sound effects, titles, and transitions. Instead, those features are accessible through a row of buttons at the bottom of the shelf. Click on Transitions, and the Clip Shelf is replaced with the Transitions Palette; click on Titles, and you get the Titles palette.

Insert Easy: Performing an insert edit (adding footage to the middle of a clip without losing sync with that clip's audio) used to be a nearly impossible task in iMovie. With iMovie 2, it's just a matter of cutting and pasting.

Unfortunately, Apple has done little to improve the functionality of titles and transitions. While titles now feature a font-size slider, the maximum size still isn't as big as iMovie 1's Òlarge typeÓ titles. The variety and flexibility of titles plug-ins are still somewhat limited, and the titles still look cheesy when exported to QuickTime. Nor have transitions improved: users looking to produce a polished movie will still want to stick with fades and washes or forgo transitions altogether.

Special Delivery: If these special effects (new to iMovie 2) look familiar, it's because they're taken directly from QuickTime Pro. Wherever they come from, they're a nice addition to a movie editor's bag of tricks.

Apple did add one major new feature to the Clip Shelf: the Effects palette. It's fairly obvious from this palette that the iMovie team purloined a lot of the application's new functionality from QuickTime Pro. And the new effects -- including Mirror, Brightness/Contrast, and Sharpen -- will look very familiar to QuickTime users. That doesn't take anything away from the usefulness of these effects plug-ins; it's just one less reason to fork over $49 for QuickTime Pro.

Interface Confusion

Like most pioneering products, iMovie 2 doesn't have a lot of examples to draw from for its interface conventions. Powerful capabilities can be hard to unearth, and behaviors can be difficult to fathom and don't necessarily act the way you expect them to. And there's still no comprehensive documentation to speak of, which means users are left to discover what works and what doesn't on their own.

Then there's the interface itself. The new Aqua-fied look is mostly window dressing, doing little to advance usability and actually getting in the way in places. The new scroll bars, for example, don't have page-up or -down buttons. Clicking on the arrowheads scrolls the Viewer, but you can't fast-forward or jump to the beginning of the timeline.

PROS:Insert Edits, audio edits, QuickTime effects, and other enhancements bring iMovie into the mainstream of video editors.

CONS:Aqua-esque interface can be difficult to fathom; not all features behave as expected.

List Price:$49

COMPANY:800/692-7753, Apple Computer

Advice:iMovie 2 is a worthy successor to the original, which, for all its groundbreaking ease of use, ran out of gas way too quickly. Version 2 is feature-rich, capable of very sophisticated movie editing without the need for add-on applications, and despite some idiosyncratic behavior, still very easy to use.

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