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A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 5: Fine-Tune and Complete

By  Aug 13, 2010

Topics: Digital Audio, Video

Getting your movie ready for prime time.

At this point, you should have your movie roughly assembled and ready for finishing. This is where you fine-tune edit points and work on elements such as transitions, narration, and music.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you might need to consider.


If your movie will be narrated—as my cherry harvest movie is—you’ll need to record the narration. There are two ways to do this:

•    If your video editing software supports voiceover recording, you can record right into your movie project. This makes it possible to watch the movie while recording the narration.
•    You can record your narration with audio recording software, save it as an audio file, and import it into your movie project. The drawback to this is that if you don’t watch your movie at the same time, you might get the timing wrong.

My movie depends on the narration to explain what’s going on. Without the narration, no one would understand the story.

I recorded the narration using audio recording software (Audio Hijack Pro) without watching the video. I recorded each section of the narration with a long pause before the next. I then brought the resulting sound file into audio editing software (Fission) and cut the sound file into pieces for each section, which I saved in a format that my video editing software (Final Cut Pro) wouldn’t need to render. I was then able to drop the audio clips into the movie’s sequence and drag them into place for the scenes they described.

Is this the best way to handle narration? Heck, I don’t know. It sure worked for me and, if I had to do it again, I’d likely do it the same way. I like the control I got over the editing file. In fact, the flexibility this method offered enabled me to drop a narration clip in its entirety and move one clip into position before the one I recorded before it.

One thing you definitely want to keep in mind is sound quality. If you can, record using an external microphone rather than one that’s built into your computer. Make sure you record in a quiet room during a quiet time of day. Set your recording levels properly to avoid clipping (from levels set too high) or lost sound (from levels set too low). Then put on your radio voice and read your script—you did write a script, didn’t you?—into the microphone.


I added background music for my cherry harvest movie last, but that’s because it was just background music. It didn’t have any impact on the movie.

But if your movie is heavy on scenes and light on dialog or narration, you might want to synchronize the music to the movie—especially scene changes. In that case, you’ll need to have the music in place before you fine-tune the edits.

Choose appropriate music for your movie. Although I prefer mellow music, I quickly discovered that if a movie relied on music to make it work, livelier music was usually better.

Finally, if your movie is destined for general distribution to the public, you need to consider the legal aspects of the music. While it’s true that many people will match their YouTube movies to a hit song they may have bought in the iTunes Store, that’s not legal. Most music is copyrighted and certain rights—for example, the right to use it as a soundtrack for a movie—are reserved. Using copyrighted music in publicly distributed movies without the permission of the copyright holder can get you sued. Your best bet is to look into so-called “podsafe” or royalty-free music. This music is available for free or a reasonable fee for specific types of uses. Use your favorite search engine to look for sources online.

No matter what music you use, be sure to identify it and its author in the end credits for your movie.

Sound Levels

If your movie uses any combination of dialog, narration, and music, you’ll need to set the sound levels for each audio track. For example, to make sure voices can be heard over music, you might raise the sound level for voice tracks and lower it for music tracks. The process of lowering music volume to make voices easier to hear is sometimes referred to as ducking.

Some software can handle ducking automatically for you. Other software requires you to set audio edit points and change the levels between them manually. Consult the documentation that came with your software to see how you need to do this.

You might also want to consider sound levels for fading music in or out. If, for example, your movie ends before the music does, you probably wouldn’t want the music to simply cut off at the end. You can use an audio fade out to make it fade to silence as the screen goes blank.

Fine-tuning Edits

Once your narration or any important music is in place, you can fine-tune the video edits so they fit better. You may not be able to change the length of the soundtracks, but you can easily change the length of your movie by sliding edit points or adding or removing clips.

For narration, you want the scenes to match what’s showing onscreen. It’s best to start the video a second or two before the voice describing that clip begins and then end the clip a second or two after the voice finishes that description.

For music—especially music with a definite rhythm—you might want each scene change to occur to the beat of the music. This is especially important when the movie relies on music more than any other sound. If scene changes appear to occur randomly in relation to the music, the overall effect will not be nearly as good as if music and video seem to “go together.”

Some software, amazingly, can change edit points to match music. If you use such an automated tool, be sure to review what it’s done before finalizing.

Titles and Credits

You’ll probably want to include opening titles and closing credits for your movie. You may also want to use titles within the movie—for example, to identify a talking head or someone else who appears onscreen or to create section breaks between the different parts of a long movie.

Most video editing software supports a variety of title styles. If you’re using titles throughout the movie, consider keeping their styling consistent. This will help give the movie a more polished look and feel.

The opening title should include, at a minimum, the name of the movie (refer to Figure 05-01). You might also want to include the director (you!) or stars. If the movie is about a specific event, you might want to include the date of the event.


Figure 05-01: I got fancy with my opening title and used the Motion application that’s part of Final Cut Studio to include video animation in two of the title’s words.

The closing credits (refer to Figure 05-02) should include the production information, including the names of people involved in the creation of the movie. Be sure to give credit to anyone who contributed artistic content, such as still images or music.

Figure 05-02: The credit roll in my cherry harvest video lists credits and thanks.


Transitions are among the last things added to a movie. That’s because:

•    Transitions rely on edit points. If you change an edit point, the transition will need to be changed.
•    Transitions often need to be rendered. Rendering is time-consuming, so it’s best if done just once, preferably at the end of the editing process.

Today’s video editing software packages have lots of cool transitions: wipes, page turns, rotating cubes. But before you go nuts and put a different super-cool transition between each cut, take a moment to think about it. When was the last time you saw a rotating cube transition in a Discovery Channel documentary? Why do you think that is? I’ll tell you why: it’s because those effects, especially when overused, are silly and amateurish.

Okay, so maybe that’s what you want. It’s your kid’s soccer game and you want the movie to be fun. By all means, use the cool transitions. Just don’t overuse them. There’s no reason why every single clip needs to swirl or rotate or flip to the next—especially when they’re only 10 seconds apart! Save the fancy transitions for major scene changes and give your audience a break.

In my cherry harvest movie, I did simple cuts for everything except the transition from the opening credits to the start of the movie and then again from the last scene to the closing credits. Boring? Maybe. But I know that people who watch my movie aren’t distracted by special effects.

Keep in mind that some transitions modify the amount of time a clip appears onscreen. For example, a dissolve will fade a clip in or out, taking a predetermined amount of time (usually a second or two) to do so. A clip’s contents are not fully visible during the dissolve transitions. This means that you may have to adjust narration if you don’t want the narrator speaking during a transition.

Review, Tweak, Repeat

Every time you think you’re finished with the movie, play it back from beginning to end. What do you think? Need to make a little change? Make it. Then review it again.

If you have an objective viewer nearby, see what he or she thinks. You can often get good feedback by asking specific questions, such as “Do you think this scene is on screen long enough?” or “Is the narrator clear about what’s going on in this clip?”

Although you may find that you always want to make just one more little change, there comes a point where your changes probably won’t improve the movie. With luck, you’ll be able to identify your that point. Then you’ll be done and ready for Step 6: Publish.