A Detailed iMovie 08 Review, Part I: Timeline? We don’t need no steenkin’ timeline!

This review is lengthy, so I’m publishing it in two parts. In this first installment I’ll go through the initial description, video import, selection and trimming of the clips for a movie, then review the work so far. In the last installment I’ll polish the work with transitions, titles, sound effects, photos, and other tools, then provide my conclusions.

I initially intended to review iMovie by comparing it to the PC tool I used (Adobe Premiere Elements), similar to how I reviewed iPhoto 08. However, when comparing the two photo products, one of them hadn’t so radically altered the editing paradigm as to make the comparison too distracting.

That’s not the case with iMovie and Premiere Elements (or any movie editor). Sure, iMovie can be compared to any movie editor, but the comparison requires so much time on the paradigm changes it gets in the way of explaining how iMovie can be used to actually, you know, make a movie. Suffice it to say that iMovie is different (I believe in a good way) and I’m just going to review it on its own terms. Bottom line is that Premiere Elements is a fine product, is iMovie 08?

Importing Video.

The first thing to do is import video. This is one area where there is no paradigm shift. Hook up a camera and the import box comes up automatically. There’s an automatic/manual switch you can use to either grab everything on the camera’s current media, or move to the beginning of what you want and import from there (stopping it when you have what you want). I have a DV camera and a full hour of footage on tape to import, so I just plugged it in, left the switch at automatic, and hit Import. It rewound the tape and brought it all in. This is done in real-time, so it took an hour to import the video in the background while I was performing other tasks.

I have a DV camera, so I can’t comment on iMovie’s HD capability. When I imported the hour of video, iMovie grouped it into three “events” by date (similar to how iPhoto 08 groups photos into events). I considered two of the events the same, so I just drug one into the other and then named the two remaining events.

The iMovie browser shows the contents of the events(s) you’ve selected. Just drag over them to “skim” the movies. You think this is like scrubbing? Not at all. All your video is right there and you can view it literally as fast as you can move the mouse, I don’t have to open it into a viewer first. This really has to be experienced in person to be appreciated, but it’s sweet! After I played with the sheer coolness of skimming, it was time to make a movie.

Selecting Clips.

As mentioned before, you don’t load a clip into a viewer and work on it there. Rather, you select the portion of the clip you want in the browser with your mouse. Apple says it’s as easy as selecting text, and depending on the granularity in the browser there’s some truth to that. I set my browser to display a frame every five seconds of video (slider box at bottom right), so a one minute clip displays as a dozen frames. This helps you select the start/end points since you can get close without even skimming. You can make the granularity even finer, but at some point the size of the browser becomes an issue. Five seconds worked well for me. So you skim to where you want the clip to start and click the mouse, then drag to the point where you want it to end, all the time the video plays in the clip as well as the viewer window. Once you let go of the mouse you have a selection.

You can do a few things with a selected clip. Normally you’d drag it into the project window, which is a storyboard approximation of a timeline. However, you can also flag a selection as a Favorite (a green line appears above it), or Reject it (a red line appears above it), or assign a Keyword. These options are in the middle of the toolbar, just click one after selecting a clip. Favorites can be viewed separately (like looking at rated photos), rejected clips can be trashed to save disk space, and keywords are used to search and catalog clips. This brings the kind of organization to movie applications that photo apps have had for years.

Most of the time you’ll move your selection to the project area to build your movie. You can just drag it up to the project window. The clip in the browser now has an orange line beneath it, which indicates this footage is in the project. Nice. Now you continue to skim and select additional clips for the project.

In the first picture above you can see the clips in the project window (top middle). In the browser window underneath (bottom right) you see all video in the currently selected project. Orange lines underneath clips here denote that they’re part of the project.

In addition to the clips, the project window also displays transitions between clips, titles (blue), a sound effect (green), and some small icons on the clips themselves, all of which I’ll discuss in part two of this review.

A couple of points on selecting clips:

  • By default, clicking a clip in the browser automatically selects four seconds starting at the point of the click. This nearly drove me mad! Not only do I want more than four seconds most of the time, but an errant click would select something new, which was frustrating. You can change this default behavior however. The second picture above shows the preferences dialog, where you set the action for a click. Notice I changed mine to just deselect all. I would actually prefer to set a click to do nothing, but deselecting was the least disrupting choice available.
  • To select the “in” and “out” points of a clip, I use a fine granularity of the browser in combination with skimming and the viewer. However, while I try to be accurate, I do not concern myself with being exact at this time. The reason for this is that you can trim a clip more precisely when it’s in a project. Once I have a clip selected in the browser I move it into the project, then click anywhere in the browser to deselect it and then select another clip, continuing until I have all my clips in the project.

Editing (Trimming) Clips.

Once a clip is in a project, you can trim it in a manner easier and more precise than in the browser. In order to do this, however, you need another trip to the preferences dialog. Refer again to the picture of preferences, there’s an item at the bottom (“Show advanced tools”) you should turn on. The advanced tools allow you to use the keywords mentioned earlier, and also put Extend buttons at the ends of each clip in a project. Clicking an Extend button moves the start point earlier (or the end point later) by the amount of time set in the “Extend buttons add” section of preferences. By default the extend buttons add 1 second, but I prefer even finer control so I set mine to a half-second.

When you mouse over a clip in a project, you’ll see the clip’s length, Extend buttons, and a clock icon (used to edit the entire clip).

Since I get my clips close to the right size before sending them to a project, I usually only need a short amount of correction, so using the Extend buttons is quick and convenient. It’s easier than trying to drag the clip for a half-second length, which is your other option. Clicking the clock icon opens the entire clip in the project without the distraction of other clips. The selected portion is in yellow, and you can drag the ends where you want to modify the selection. Once you have a new selection, select “Trim to selection” from the Edit menu and then click Done. The clock icon is great when you want to heavily modify a clip because it saves you the trouble of having to delete it from the project, re-select new start/end points in the browser, and then add it back to the project.

I found that by selecting clips somewhat “roughly” (though still being close) in the browser, and fine-tuning them in the project, where I can use the extend buttons or clock, I was able to work quickly. My speed had increased a lot by the end of the project.

If you decide you don’t like the order of the clips in a project, simply select and drag them to new locations.

Reviewing Your Work.

You can skim though a project to see your work, or just double-click anywhere on a clip to start playing in real-time from that point. You can also select a clip and double-click the yellow bar at the beginning to play just that clip. Or you can click the Play buttons to play from the beginning of the project (the play button on a dark background plays full screen, the other plays in the viewer). All of these actions work in the browser as well.

Now that all your clips are selected, in a project, trimmed to the desired length, and in the correct order, it’s time to add polish to your movie.

In the final installment I’ll cover the items you’ll use to polish your movie. As a hint, most of them are at the far right of the toolbar.