RGMP 13: Edit your video with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker

This is the 13th post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the 12th post, I discussed storytelling principles and shooting techniques for Web video. In this post, I will explain how to edit video in a very simple editing program.

Let’s take a quick look at the steps:

  1. Capture or import clips
  2. Trim the clips and put them in order
  3. Add and/or adjust audio (narration, interviews, music)
  4. Add title(s) and credits
  5. Export movie file

This set of steps is basically the same no matter which program you use for editing video. I will explain each one below. But first …

Which editing program is best?

This is usually the wrong question — or the wrong way to ask it. There is no reason to delay your video editing education just because you do not have a fancy, expensive program. Every Mac has iMovie. Every Windows computer has (or can get) Windows Movie Maker. Both of these are free. This also means that every university, college, and high school has them too. Everybody can learn how to edit video!

Some people prefer to buy a top-of-the-line software program with a big price tag — for all kinds of reasons. This is fine if you are really going to learn how to use it. But what if you find it to be too much work? The learning demands of a high-end program are greater than those of a simple program. You can always upgrade later, if you find out you love editing video.

Rather than invite a big flame war over which program is better, I’m going to stick with the basics. Remember that Web video is often shot with cheap cameras (even cell phones), and it’s not going to look like a Hollywood blockbuster no matter what you use for editing.

The computer you’re using

Some computers are under-equipped for video editing. If you buy a new computer, pay close attention to: (1) processor speed; (2) amount of memory; and (3) capacity of the hard drive. If you start editing video on your old computer and it locks up, freezes, or crashes a few times, that is the computer’s way of telling you it is too old and tired to handle the task.

Another thing you need to check is the transfer method from your camera to the computer. Some cameras use USB 2.0 for transferring video; your computer can probably handle that, unless it’s ancient. Some cameras use FireWire (also called IEEE 1394) or FireWire 800 (IEEE 1394b) — note these are two different standards! — and your computer may not have that built in. If not, you can add a FireWire card to a desktop computer for very little cost. You probably can’t add it to a laptop that lacks it.

Capture or import clips

“Capture” refers to transferring the video directly from your camera to the video editing program. “Import” is what we do when the video files are already on the computer’s hard drive. For example, if you shoot video with a little point-and-shoot still camera, or with any of the Pure Digital video cameras (such as the Flip), you can easily copy the files over to your hard drive. In that case, you would later import the clips into your editor.

When you capture, your camera is connected to the computer, and you have two general choices: Bring in everything you shot, or use the editing program to select the good footage (clips) and then bring in only the good stuff. The “everything” method sounds easier, but in fact the “select good stuff” method is more efficient — plus it takes less space on your hard drive.

The simple editing programs will automatically split your “everything” into shorter clips unless you select an option to prevent it. When you are a beginner, you might as well accept the splitting. You will find it harder to work with one gigantic file — trust me.

Trim the clips and put them in order

Here’s where the technical action is simple, but the cognitive action is challenging. Clips are separate pieces of video (see RGMP 12). Your clips are visual vignettes that propel the story. If they are redundant or overlong or simply dull (e.g., lots of talking heads), they will not hold a viewer’s interest. If they are random or seemingly unrelated, they will alienate the viewer.

The old rule “garbage in, garbage out” applies: What you shot is all you’ve got. Is it enough? Is it the right stuff? Can you tell the story with these clips? Some video news stories are visually very uninteresting, because basically all we see are some people talking (reporters, witnesses, officials) and some pathetic B-roll (empty streets, yellow police tape) to fill in the gaps. (Don’t forget the five-shot method from RGMP 12!)

(You might want to review RGMP 11: Tell a good story with images and sound and think a bit about the structure of your story.)

The good news is, you will get better at shooting the right stuff after you’ve practiced editing a few times. Your failures in editing will teach you what to look for the next time you go out to shoot.

Now, for the technical part: As a beginner, trim something off the beginning and something off the end of each clip. Do not try to get more than one thing out of any single clip. (You can break this rule later, when you are more experienced.)

So, when you play the clip, before cutting, you’re looking for the best bit in that clip. After you have decided on the best bit, cut twice: Once to discard the part before the best bit, and a second time to discard the part after the best bit. In Windows Movie Maker, you’ll see three thumbnail images where there used to be one (the middle thumbnail is the one you drag down to the Storyboard). In iMovie 09, you’ll drag a yellow frame around the best bit, excluding the two discarded parts (before and after). When the yellow frame is positioned as you want it, you’ll drag the framed bit into the Storyboard.

How long should an edited clip be? That depends on the content of the clip, but in general, a lot of clips are good at 4 to 6 seconds. Beginners tend to leave in too much material. However, when you’re trimming, be careful NOT to cut into the middle of an action. If you have a tight close-up of someone pouring water into a glass, for example, start with the glass before the pouring begins, and end it after the pouring stops.

A common newbie editing mistake is the jump cut. For a good example of a bad jump cut, and suggestions on how to avoid jump cuts in your editing, see this post by videographer Angela Grant.

Another newbie error occurs when you fail to cut matching action correctly. This article at Videomaker explains matching action — make sure you click through the photos at the top to see and understand the visual sequence.

Add and/or adjust audio

In addition to the audio that is part of your clips, you can add additional audio on a separate track in both iMovie and Windows Movie Maker. However, there is only one separate track for audio in these editors. (In a sophisticated video editing program, you will have more than one audio track to work with.)

When you have added audio that overlaps with the audio in your clips, you will usually need to adjust the volume of the audio in the clip. Instead of muting it completely, it usually seems more natural if you just lower the volume sufficiently so that it does not compete with the added track. If there is natural sound such as a door slamming or a fire truck’s siren in the video, then leave it alone, or increase the volume if necessary.

Music. Many beginners like to take the easy way out and just lay down some music in this track. I’ll admit I’ve done it myself, for vacation videos. But that’s NOT journalism! In fact, a lot of journalists say any added music is ethically questionable in a journalistic video. Obviously, music is almost always used in professional documentaries, so there’s still debate about this. But my advice to new video journalists is: Do not add any music!

Narration. Beginners are often very reluctant to add narration to their videos — but narration can really enhance some stories. You should script your narration and practice reading it before you record it. It will be better to record it in a stand-alone file and add it to the video, instead of using the narration tools included in the editor — this allows you much more flexibility.

Interviews. It’s going to be difficult to cut to and away from a talking head in iMovie or WMM, because you have only one video track. (In a sophisticated video editing program, you will have at least two video tracks to work with.) You can compensate for this by conducting your interview with a good-quality digital recorder, editing the best sound bites and saving them as individual audio files (see RGMP 4), and importing these audio files to the video project. By creating discrete audio files, you will be able to slide them left and right on the audio track and position them with precision so that they match the visuals well.

Note: To add these discrete audio tracks in iMovie, treat them as if they were sound effects. Add your audio files to the “iLife Sound Effects” folder (see video tutorial). In WMM you can just import the files as you would any other audio (see PDF tutorial).

Add title(s) and credits

All video editing programs have a variety of options for adding a title (at the beginning) and credits (at the end). You can change the background color, the font family and its size and color, and the animation effects. To give your video a journalistic feel, you should avoid cheesy effects. Keep it simple, and your work will appear more professional.

You can also choose to lay the title or credits over your video or over an imported still image (or sequence of stills) instead of having a solid-color background.

You can stretch the width of the title or credits on the Timeline to make them stay onscreen for more (or less) time. Everything on the Timeline is a little rectangle that can be manipulated by clicking and dragging. (Note: iMovie 09 does not have a Timeline per se.)

A word about typos: How stupid do you think you look when you have an error in spelling, punctuation or grammar in your video titles or credits? (You can always type the text into MS Word if you are a total pawn to spell-check — and then copy and paste it into the editor.)

Transitions and effects

Avoid these for Web video. First, they usually look unprofessional for journalism work. Second, they will increase the file size of your final video file — sometimes by a lot! Just use straight cuts between clips.

If you import still photos, keep the zooming and panning to a minimum. These effects are trite and amateurish most of the time, and again, it makes your journalism work look unprofessional.

Export the movie file

While you are editing, you must save the project file often. I suggest that you can never save often enough! If your system or the program crashes or freezes, you will lose your edits. (Note: iMovie 09 will auto-save your project.)

Note that your original video files are NEVER changed by the editing process. This is because the project file you are saving (when you are editing) is essentially a small text file that saves information about your editing actions. The project file does not contain ANY video or audio. Thus if you gave the project file alone to someone else, that person would not be able to see your video.

You will create the actual video file after you have finished editing the project. (Make sure to save the project one last time!) In iMovie 09, you’ll open the Share menu and select “Export Movie.” In Windows Movie Maker, you’ll open the File menu and select “Save Movie File” (in the Windows Vista version, select “Publish Movie”).

The best practice is to save the video file at the highest possible quality. Ignore all the options for “Web,” “YouTube,” “iPhone,” etc. — these will be lower quality video files. After you have exported the highest quality file, you can then convert it into any low-quality type you might need. The high-quality file can be uploaded “as is” to YouTube, Vimeo, etc. Exporting the high-quality file might take several minutes — even if your project is only about two minutes long.

The final video file out of WMM will be in the AVI format. The final video file out of iMovie will be in the MOV format.

Tutorials and tip sheets

For a short list of video editing tutorials and other help, see Journalist’s Toolkit: Video. There are links to very nice step-by-step tutorials for both iMovie and Windows Movie Maker.

Project file management

Many of us move around from one computer to another, working on the same project on different machines. This can cause a huge problem with any project-based editing program (including Audacity and Soundslides, as well as most video editors).

Remember that the project file does not contain any of your video or audio. Therefore, you cannot take the project file alone to another computer and continue working. You need to take ALL the related files every time you change to a different computer.

Equally important: The video clips and audio files must have the same relationship to the project file whenever you open the project file to start working. This means, basically, keep it all in one folder, together. The project file AND the clips. That way you will be able to make changes to the project on a different computer.

If you have blank or missing thumbnails in your project — or in WMM, red X’s — it means you didn’t follow this advice.

Previous posts in this series:

10 Comments on “RGMP 13: Edit your video with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker

  1. Great job…but in iMovie you can add video over an interview by going to “Advanced-Extract Audio.” This will separate the audio from the clip and you can then lay video over the audio track, just as you would with a narration. Don’t know if you can pull the same thing in MovieMaker though.

  2. Thanks, Cyndy. I’m experimenting with that this morning. Finding it a bit hard to get the sync to work if I cut in new video, so I guess I need to slice more pieces to make it work.

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  5. So, I edited a 2-min. video yesterday in iMovie 09 and used the technique Cyndy suggested. It’s a bit tricky because it’s hard to insert other things on top of the detached audio without wrecking the sync. But it is quite easy to detach the audio from the video (just Control-click the clip and get a menu).

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