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iMovie, A Revolution Takes Hold
by Hiram C. Wilson
Published: 5/23/2000



Recently Apple released iMovie, its excellent digital video editing software, as a free download on Apple's web site. [Update: The free iMovie v1 download seems to have disappeared since Apple started selling iMovie2 in late 2000.-Mike] There have been many articles published singing the praises of iMovie. iMovie is a fantastic piece of software for creating your own digital movies and over the coming year I have little doubt people will create some truly wonderful stuff using this software. Thank you Apple for giving this software to all of your customers.

In all the accolades for iMovie some key things have been overlooked. To truly appreciate how simple and affordable iMovie has made the process of making movies, I believe you need to understand how difficult and expensive the process is with actual film. It is in this spirit that I would like to walk you through the process of editing a film using actual film rather than digital video. I hope by the end you will see exactly why I am so excited about the capabilities of the combination of a Mac, iMovie and a digital video camera.

Most commercial films that you watch in movie theaters are shot and edited on 35mm film and this has been the case for about the last 30 years. 35mm movie film is very similar to the film used in your average 35mm still camera with a couple of exceptions. Movie cameras move the 35mm film through the camera vertically rather than horizontally in still camera. Also movie film uses a slightly different composition than still film because the negative of movie film is printed on a transparency rather than a paper print in the case of still film. Another popular format of movie film is 16mm. This is like 35mm film but it's physically smaller, less than half the size of 35mm film. The reduced size of 16mm film makes it cheaper than 35mm in every way. The film itself costs less, the processing of the film costs less and the cameras are smaller and lighter and less expensive than their 35mm counterparts. 16mm is still used professionally for a number of prime time TV shows. In recent years, it has also been used for low-budget independent movies.

I'll use 16mm as the film format for my walk through; I have extensive experience with this format having shot and edited a number films of varying lengths in 16mm. However, the process is basically identical using either 16mm or 35mm.

Film is expensive, period. Even 16mm, the cheapest of the professional film formats, is expensive. One 400 foot roll of 16mm color film costs about $100. Then to get the film developed and printed so it can be viewed and edited costs about $110. 400 feet of 16mm film translates into about 11 minutes of screen time for $210 or $19 per minute. That's assuming you could shoot exactly what you needed without making any mistakes. Generally, in filmmaking you count on shooting a 10 to 1 ratio. This means that for every 10 minutes of film you shoot, 1 minute of it ends up in the final film. This ratio is actually quite low, if it's a big budget film you might have a ratio of 20 to 1 or more. Let's say you were shooting a 6 minute movie, given the information above your movie would cost $1140 dollars ($19 x 60 minutes) in film and processing costs alone! Compare this to a Digital8 digital video camcorder (like one you would use with iMovie) which can record 60 minutes of digital video on a single $4 Hi8 tape; it's quite a difference. Not only are the tapes inexpensive, digital video has none of the processing costs associated with film. Digital video is absurdly, stunningly, ridiculously, fantastically-- cheap!

Some other things to consider in this comparison are the differences between a 16mm camera and your typical MiniDV or Digital8 camera. Size and weight, although 16mm cameras are smaller and lighter than 35mm cameras they are positively enormous and heavy when compared to their tiny digital video cousins. Your typical 16mm camera weighs in around 15 to 20 pounds, without batteries. And the batteries can add another 5 pounds or more. 16mm cameras are big mechanical devices; they are not unlike running a sewing machine on battery power. They use a great deal of power. Digital video cameras are typically less than 2 pounds with their batteries. I'm sure just about everyone knows video cameras record the sound with the video. It's all recorded digitally on the same tape. Many people may not realize this is not the case with 16 or 35mm film. Instead, the camera records only the picture and the sound is recorded separately on an external tape deck. Circuitry inside the camera and the external tape deck keep them both running at a constant speed so the image and sound can be "sync-ed" together later. Having the sound recorded externally complicates the entire filmmaking process and adds to the cost as well. Score another one for iMovie and digital video.

Ok, so let's say you've shot all of the film you need for your 6 minute film masterpiece. (Shooting the film is no small feat; however since iMovie is about editing, I want to spend most of my time on the editing aspect of movie making.) The film is now back from the lab and you have your "one-light" print. This is the print of the film that you will use for editing. "One-light" refers to the color correction of the print, the lab just uses simple standard color correction so your print costs less to process. You'll just be using this print for editing so it doesn't matter if the color or exposure are as good as they can be. Next, you'll take all of the sound you recorded and transfer it to "mag stock". The external tape deck I mentioned uses a different type of tape than what is used for the actual editing process. This means yet another step in the editing process, you transfer all of the sound from the external tape deck to tape which looks just like 16mm film (with the identical sprocket holes). Once this is done, you are on to the next step, syncing the sound with the film.

For each frame of film you now have the corresponding sound which needs to be married to the proper image on the film. You sit down in front of a large desk with bunch of spinning platters on it and a little view screen in the center, this device is often called a "flatbed". You put the roll of film on one of the platters and feed it across the desk to a another take up platter on the other side. You do the same with your roll of sound. Now the real work finally begins. You search through your film to find the first "slate"; the picture at the beginning of a shot which shows the stick slamming down on the board labeled with shot information. You've probably seen these "slates" in the out takes of Hollywood movies. These are the boards which have the scene, shot and take number written on them. They also have one moving part, a little hinged piece of wood at the top which is snapped down to make a very distinct noise. This is sometimes referred to as, "slating the shot". These slates serve a very critical purpose; they serve as a mark so you can synchronize the sound with the picture. You look for the picture on your film where the top board hits the board below it, this is the point at which it would make a sound. You mark this frame with a big X using a permanent magic marker. Then you scan through your sound track and listen for the "clap" sound on the sound track. You manipulate the sound track using the flatbed to isolate the single frame where the sound is most pronounced and mark it with an X as well. You then position both the film and the sound track on the flatbed so both Xs match up. Next you flip a button on the flat bed so both the film and the sound play together in sync and verify that the sound does indeed match the shot. Assuming the shot is synchronized with sound. You mark the end of the shot both on the film and the sound track and you cut the shot out . In this case, I mean literally cut. You use a special little guillotine-like device to cut the film and sound at your shot's head and tail (beginning and end) marks. The cuts happen right at the gaps between frames on both the sound and film. You then label the shot and sound with tape and hang them in a bin which is usually placed next to your flatbed.

Now that you've just cut your film and sound into two pieces you use special tape to splice the ends of the film and sound remaining on your flatbed back together. Yes, you use actual tape. Remember this is actual film I'm talking about, an analog physical medium. Let's say your little 6 minute film has 20 different shots in it and you had to do each of them 10 times to get them right. This means you would need to repeat the process I just described as many as 200 times. It would probably be less though because you might discard some shots outright because of various flaws. Even so, you can imagine how much time this takes.

With iMovie the above process is probably as simple as it can possibly be, connect your digital camera to your Mac via a Firewire cable, press the "Camera mode" button in iMovie, use the on screen buttons to position your video to where you want to begin capturing, then press the "Import" button. iMovie automatically captures your shots and places the individual shots in the "Shelf" (iMovie's term for the bin). The sound for each shot remains attached and synchronized to the picture.

Let's return to film editing, now you have all of your shots stashed in your bin and grouped with the appropriate sound. Your next step is to splice all of the best shots into the correct order. A lot of that special splicing tape is involved in this part of the process. Once you have this done, you have a "rough cut". In this case, it's really rough because you still have the slates at the head of each shot. You're next step is to trim out the slates. You watch your movie over and over trimming here and there until you have things just the way you want them. With film editing, you kind of inch slowly towards your final cut, trimming carefully, because putting film back once it has been cut is a tricky proposition. Where did you put that 12 frame section of film and sound that you now want to splice back on to the head of this shot? This usually results in a lot of pacing and gnashing of teeth.

Making a rough cut in iMovie involves dragging your shots from the shelf to the movie track in the clip viewer. Absolutely no tape is involved. Trimming shots after they have been placed on the shelf, or the movie track, is also a simple matter. If you trim a shot too short, you can simply use the undo feature. After a point it becomes impossible to undo a trim, but even in this worst case scenario it's an easy task to recapture the original shot.

Now that your film is cut the way you want it, you may also want to add sound effects and music, etc. This involves another set of steps which eventually require you to "mix", rerecord all of the sounds you want, down to a single track of mag stock. It's sufficiently complicated that can take one person a great deal of time to do even on a short 6 minute film. Once you have the sound track done, the end of the tunnel is starting to come into view.

iMovie makes it easy to add sound effects, voice over narration or music to your movie. You simply add these sounds to the appropriate track in the clip viewer. In fact, iMovie includes a bunch of sound effects and any of these can be dragged to the narration or music track. A separate step to mix the audio is not required with iMovie, it happens in realtime as you are playing back your movie.

It's on to A & B rolling. What's A & B rolling?, you ask. I'll try to explain, but I'm going to skip a few of the details in the interest of clarity and brevity. Throughout the editing process you've been working on a "one-light" a.k.a. "work print." The negative for your film has been safely locked away. Your work print now looks like something Frankenstein might have made. At this point it will be scratched, and dirty and the clips will be joined together by dozens or even hundreds of pieces of tape. And don't forget, the sound is still on separate track from the picture. Your film in its current state can not be projected by a conventional film projector. To put your film in its final form you need to create A & B rolls of the negative to get it ready to send to the lab. This is called conforming the negative. You start with roll A, you add a little bit of blank leader (film with no picture on it) to the head of the roll. Now you break out your negative and while wearing clean soft white cotton gloves, you search through the negative for your first shot. Why the gloves? The negative has to be handled extremely carefully because it's the original film, any scratch on the negative will appear on every print of final film. So how do you find the shot you want out of all that negative, you use the the "edge numbers." Motion picture film has little serial numbers printed on the edge of the film and these numbers get transferred to your one-light print. You compare the numbers on your edited work print to the numbers on the negative. If this sounds tedious to you-- you're right. It can be mind numbing.

Once you find the shot you are looking for and once you are positive you have exactly the frames you want, no more no less, you cut that shot out of the negative and splice it to your A roll. Now you do the same thing with shot number two. Except this time, you add a very precise amount of blank leader to roll B. The amount of leader has to match, to the exact frame, the number of frames of blank leader on roll A plus the number of frames in shot 1. Once you have this exact amount of blank leader on roll B then you can splice shot 2 on to roll B. Shot three will go on to roll A after an amount of blank leader equal to the exact length of shot 2. In this way you continue to alternate between each roll until every shot done. This is not a fun part of film editing and I have honestly never met anyone who actually enjoyed doing this. It's so un-fun many people pay to have a specialist at a film lab conform their negative for them, these specialists charge a lot of money though and it can add a lot to the total cost of your film. I should also mention that the process I just described is for straight cuts only, no fancy transitions like a dissolve. If your movie has dissolves or fades, conforming the negative becomes even more complicated and tedious.

No need for A & B rolling in iMovie and transitions, even complex dissolves, fades and wipes, are a piece of cake. You simply drag the transition you want between two shots in clip viewer and you can easily preview and adjust the transition before placing it. After placing the transition, if you are not happy with it, just undo it. iMovie removes the tedium from the editing process and only the fun remains.

Now that you have your A & B rolls and your mixed sound track, it's back to lab to have an "answer print" made. This print will be a "married" print. The pictures will be married to the sound track so it will now be possible to project it through a standard projector with sound. In the case of 16mm film, the sound track is an optical track on one edge of the finished film. The sound quality of the optical track is limited to about the same quality as an AM radio. It's not even close to the CD quality sound iMovie and digital video can handle. Back to the answer print, it will cost you about $160 for a 6 minute film. Although it's a married print you still may not be finished, the lab makes educated guesses about the color and exposure of this print. After you see it, you might want them to adjust the color or exposure in various places and then have them make you another print. Subsequent prints are cheaper, thankfully. Once they make a print you are satisfied with, you're done!

Of course, labs are not necessary with iMovie, neither are one-light or answer prints. When you have your movie the way you want it you select "Export Movie" from the "File" menu and you export the movie to your digital video camcorder. Your movie is recorded back to a tape in your digital video camcorder via Firewire, the exceptional quality of the digital video is maintained.

Your film and processing costs combined with the answer print add up to $1300. $1300 for one 6 minute 16mm film. Of course, this number is low because you would probably have to pay to rent the 16mm camera and sound equipment not to mention the cost of the renting the editing flatbed and other miscellaneous expenses. Let's say those things would add up to $700. This is still probably lower than what you would actually pay, but let's use it for the sake of argument. Your grand total is now at $2000. What can you do with $2000? One option would be to buy yourself a brand new iMac DV (iMovie is preinstalled) and a Digital8 video camera. You would have enough left over for a several blank tapes. With this equipment you can make dozens or even hundreds of movies, your biggest limitation will be your own imagination.

If you have had the opportunity to use iMovie yourself, or have seen it demonstrated, or even if you have only read a review of it, you now know it represents almost the diametric opposite of traditional film editing. iMovie is revolutionary in the simplicity it brings to what was once an extremely complex task.

-Hiram


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