Video Editing Tips: Give Your Videos the Hollywood Treatment

Illustration: Diego Aguirre

A friend stopped by the other day to show me a video of his cross-country bicycle trip. By the time it was finished, I could have pedaled across the country myself. The poor guy didn't have a clue how to edit his footage. He's one of many digital video camera owners who don't know how to get what they've shot into viewable shape. Here's some quick and simple post-production advice for anyone with a yen to do digital videography.

Pick your program: Windows XP's Service Pack 2 includes the free Movie Maker 2.1 application. To open it, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Windows Movie Maker. This basic program's Movie Tasks pane in the upper left takes you step-by-step through the process of creating your video (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Windows XP's Movie Maker 2.1 video editing program provides only basic editing functions through its Movie Tasks pane.
). Adobe's $99 Premiere Elements, a more full-featured editing program, offers special effects, titling, and the ability to burn a DVD right from the software, among other features. If you eventually decide to make the leap to Adobe's professional-level app, the $699 Premiere Pro, you'll be able to use all the tricks you've learned in the lower-cost package because the interfaces are remarkably consistent. All three programs take you from getting raw footage into your PC to outputting polished video.

Import your video: To move video from your camcorder to your hard drive, connect your PC and camcorder with a FireWire cable, turn the camcorder on, and open your video editing software. The program should recognize the camera automatically. In most video editing programs, the Capture command opens a window containing VCR-like controls for playing, stopping, fast-forwarding, and rewinding. Give your video clips names that will jog your memory about their content when you're ready to start editing.

Edit your footage: The simplest way to edit your movie is to put the clips into your software's timeline in the order you prefer. The timeline shows your movie in frame-by-frame sequence (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: The timeline in Adobe's Premiere Elements video editing software shows your movie frame by frame.
). Once all of your clips are displayed on the timeline, select each clip in turn and set the "in" and "out" points. These are the frames that mark where each video clip begins and ends. Essentially, you're trimming the tops and tails from your clips to remove unwanted pieces.

Add filters and transitions: When you're satisfied with the order and duration of the clips, you're ready to fashion them into a movie. It's possible that all your clips look similar, but chances are you'll want to tweak at least a few of them to give the whole group a more consistent appearance. For example, you might find that some clips are brighter or more colorful than others (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Adding a camera-mounted light keeps your subject visible, even when she's in front of a bright background.
). Your editing program should contain filters that allow you to adjust a scene's brightness, contrast, and color balance. Bear in mind, though, that there's a limit to how finely you can polish poorly lit or jerky footage.

You're better off shooting well-lit video in the first place; a small camera-mounted light will help keep your interior shots bright. A battery-powered light, such as Sony's 10-watt HVL-10DC, fits into the accessory shoe on the top of your camera. You can find these for less than $50 on sale. Often in video, foreground subjects appear too dark because too much light is behind them. A camera-mounted light provides a steady level of additional front lighting to overcome this problem.

When you're satisfied with how your clips look, add transitions to smooth shifts between clips or to add dramatic impact. Your video editing software likely provides a slew of transitions and wipes, but your best bet is to keep it simple. Stick to straight cuts, dissolves, and the ever-popular "fade to black" (or if you're a Six Feet Under fan, "fade to white"). A cross-dissolve fades out one clip as another clip fades in. An additive dissolve adds a second clip and then fades out the first one. Most other transitions available in programs, such as page curls and fancy wipes, are the hallmarks of cheesy 1980s videos.

Add titles, graphics, and motion: Every video editing program allows you to add text overlays, titles, and credits to your movie (see FIGURE 4

FIGURE 4: Give your video a professional look by adding titles to appropriate opening and closing shots.
). Some also feature built-in motion so that, for example, text can scroll down the screen or appear letter by letter. If you have a digital still camera, you can import pictures from it and add them to your movie. If the still images are larger than 720 by 480 pixels (the size of a frame of video), you can use your editing program's motion capabilities to pan across the image, à la documentarian Ken Burns. This technique works particularly well to set the scene at the start of a video.

One thing to bear in mind as you edit your video is the curvature of a TV screen, which can cause images to look distorted near their edges. Keep the important details of each shot near the center of the screen, and avoid having words or sentences approach the edges. Oh, and that nasty buzzing you sometimes hear on late-night TV ads? It's caused by small white titles that generate noise.

Add music and narration: Few free video editing programs let you import multiple audio tracks, so you'll need to pony up some cash if you want to give your video a more elaborate sound track. Adobe's Premiere Elements can handle up to 99 audio tracks in one movie. The application also gives you the ability to separate the audio that you import along with your video into individual, editable tracks.

If you decide to add a voice-over to your video, a simple trick is to use your camera to record the narration. Then you simply import the video and audio together into your program, throw away the unwanted video track, and then position the audio track in your project. To help with your sound track's continuity, stagger the audio so that the sound from one clip runs into the next. If you do this, the cut will seem less abrupt because the audio and the video won't end at the same time.

You should be able to import MP3s and other common audio formats, such as .wav files, into your video. If you're working on a corporate video, however, be sure to obtain the rights to all the songs you use. You may want to consider purchasing an inexpensive royalty-free music collection so your boss won't get sued by Metallica. For example, Partners in Rhyme (has a broad selection of CDs to choose from.

Get on TV: Once you have completed your masterpiece, getting it into TV-viewing shape is pretty straightforward. The first step is to copy your video to disc: You can port the edited video from your computer back to your camera and rerecord it, or you can play it through your camera to tape on an attached VCR, or you can burn a DVD (if your editing program permits you to). And that's all--you're done!

Now, don't expect these tips to make you the new Ang Lee, but they're a good start at least. Don't be afraid to try out all the features of your editing program--you can always undo a wacky effect if it doesn't pan out (if only Oliver Stone had used an undo button). Remember, less is always better in this short-attention-span world, so edit your videos tightly.

Video Essentials

Before you shout "Action!" make sure that you have a few of these hardware and software necessities stacked beside your director's chair.

FireWire: If you want to edit digital video, your PC and video camera must have FireWire ports. The good news is that nearly all PCs sold in the last couple of years come with FireWire ports built in. If your system lacks one, you can buy a FireWire add-in card for about $50.

Hard-disk space: One hour of digital video uses about 13GB of hard-disk space. To have enough room to edit the video, you'll need at least 40GB of free storage space. And keep in mind that your finished movie, stored on your hard drive, will eat up space there, too.

Operating systems: Windows XP, 2000, and NT are better operating system options for editing digital video because they put no limitation on file size. Depending on the particular version you have, Windows 98 and Me limit file size to 2GB or 4GB, which translates into either 10 or 20 minutes of continuous video.

Processor speed and RAM: Because video is so data rich, you'll need a machine that's speedier than a 750-MHz Pentium 4 PC. Though it's possible to edit video on a slower system, your work will suffer from jerky motion and long waits as the monster video file bogs down the CPU. Because the amount of RAM your PC has affects its performance, I recommend having at least 256MB of RAM installed.

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