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How To Create Final Cut Pro Effects Using iMovie

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The list price of Apple's Final Cut Pro HD is just a buck under a grand, and iMovie is bundled—effectively free—with all new Mac OS X computers. So, you might well ask, what's the diff?

As far as the technical quality of output—as long as we're talking DV and not HD or HDV—they're both the same.

That's where the similarities end.

Mixing and Baking

To use a cooking analogy, the differences lie in your control over the mixing and baking. In iMovie, you have only three tracks to work with—one video and two audio (stereo left and right). Final Cut Pro lets you work with lots of simultaneous video and tracks—even if, in the end, you need to output just three. (Forget that videotape masters need four tracks, Surround Sound uses at least five, and DVDs can contain multiple selectable video and audio tracks.)

Make iMovie Sound Professional

In iMovie, you get around the two-track constraint by overlaying one track, such as a sound effect, on another, such as music. However, once done, you can only adjust the overall volume (level) of the single, mixed track. (In Final Cut, the tracks can stay separate and separately adjustable.)

To create rich, multilayered soundtracks in iMovie, build your music clips separately in GarageBand (iLife's music composition app), write to the iTunes Library, then bring them into your video project through the Audio Pane. Or, use an audio editing app like DigiDesign Pro Tools Free, which permits eight tracks of audio (dialogue and effects) and as many as 48 MIDI (music) tracks. Although "mixed down" (combined) when imported to iMovie, your soundtrack components will remain separately editable within the audio app project file.

Cook Up Effects With Canned Clips

On the video side, the kinds of sophisticated effects you can create with Final Cut Pro include transitions (such as fades, wipes, and dissolves), compositing (combining video imagery as multiple tracks), animated titles, filters (coloring and texturing), and distortion. Final Cut's video effects are keyframable, which you can think of as custom blending. In iMovie, video effects are typically "canned." The choice is much like deciding whether to bake a cake from scratch or use a mix.

But iMovie does come with a respectable assortment of ready-made plug-in video effects, and there is a huge selection of third-party plug-ins available also. (There are lots of plug-ins for Final Cut, too.) Think of plug-ins as the microwave dinners of video editing: They can lend visual sophistication without the bother of starting from scratch. Vendors include Stupendous Software, Virtix, CSB Digital, Gee Three, ImageIP, BKMS, eZedia, and Mouken. They sell bundled sets of special-purpose tools at modest prices, and some offer fully workable sample modules as downloads from their Web sites. (For a list with Web links, surf to and scroll down to the bottom right of the page.)

Gee Three offers nine, free downloadable effects at as the Slick Sampler (six transitions and three filters). Once installed in iMovie, you select them from the Effects Pane as you would any of the supplied filters.

Cut to the Dissolve

You might need complex and novel transitions when you're making a short, high-impact music video or a tradeshow crowd-stopper. Transition effects, however, are easily overdone and usually the mark of an overzealous amateur. If you're telling a story or delivering a message, my advice would be to stick to cuts and dissolves, which iMovie does perfectly well.

Color Correction is Crucial

But there's one category of plug-in you really shouldn't be without—color correction. If you're shooting on a budget with available light—now indoors, now out—chances are your scenes aren't color balanced from one to the next. Your subjects might look green or blue in some shots, orange in others.

Two color correction filters are included in iMovie 4—Adjust Color and Brightness and Contrast. You'll find a more robust set of color controls in Gee Three Slick Volume 6, which sells for $69.95 as a download. It will even generate "broadcast-safe" colors automatically. The Volume 6 bundle also includes lots of other toys you can play with, including some keyframe controls—but please use them sparingly!


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