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Getting Started With Movie Maker

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This chapter is from the book

As a journalist who specializes in video-related topics, I get a lot of email asking basic questions about digital video, editing, and video production in general. Sometimes, late at night when I'm answering these queries I fantasize about bundling them together on my Web site. I could label them the Jan-FAQs (pretty catchy, eh?), attract a gazillion eyeballs from interested readers, start accepting advertising, and then sell the whole thing to Donald Trump.

Until then, however, it strikes me that since Movie Maker is the prototypical "first video editor" used by many editing newbies; many readers of this book may share some of the same questions. So this chapter begins with an abridged version of the Jan-FAQs to make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to terms and terminology. Then it introduces the Movie Maker interface and discusses how and where to set project defaults. Finally, it concludes with a brief look at how to plan and organize your Movie Maker projects.

The Jan-FAQs

On one level, making movies sounds kind of easy. You shoot your video, capture it on your computer, edit it into a polished production, and then spit it out for your viewers to adore. Then you start thinking about details like formats and resolutions and codecs and frame rates and DV and MPEG-2 and authoring for DVD, and it's pretty easy to get sidetracked by the details.

The good news is, it really can be as easy as it sounds. The bad news is that you need to learn a bit about digital movie making before getting started. You don't need a semester course; reading the next few sections should make the rest of the book a lot easier to understand. I know this stuff seems basic, but the devil can be in the details.

What is video, anyway?

Video is a synchronized stream of frames and audio. In the United States, which uses the NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) standard, video on your television displays 30 frames a second. Europe uses a different standard that displays 25 frames per second, while most films you see in theatres are shot and displayed at 24 frames per second.

Interestingly, video can be created from digital photographs and other nonvideo sources. When displaying a photograph on United States TV, however, the production system creates 30 frames per second of that still image to broadcast over the airwaves. Movie Maker performs a similar function when you add still images to your video productions.

What is digital video?

Okay, promise me you'll stand on one leg as you read this.

Digital video is any video played on a computer or other digital device. To be honest, analog video has always been kind of magic to me, and I've never really been good at defining it, other than saying it's the type of video broadcast over television sets and stored on VHS and Hi8 camcorders.

However, digital video suits my "left brain, fallen-CPA" thought processes to a Mr. T, precisely because it is so endearingly definable. For example, all digital video files are composed of pixels, or picture elements, each with its own defined color. Stack enough pixels across and up and down and you get a video frame, which is what appears ever so briefly on your computer monitor.

Each frame has a resolution, which simply defines the number of pixels across and up and down. For example, DV, the primary format used on digital camcorders, has a resolution of 720 pixels across and 480 pixels up and down, a resolution commonly referred to as 720x480. That's shown in the frame recording when Santa came a-calling in Figure 3.1 .


Figure 3.1 Santa comes a calling in this 720x480 frame from a DV camera.

As you can see in Figure 3.2 , which shows a segment of the Movie Maker output screen, Movie Maker defines digital video files using four characteristics in addition to resolution, referred to as display size in the figure. Let's go through them.


Figure 3.2 The five characteristics Movie Maker uses to define a digital video file.

File types

Movie Maker supports four file types to varying degrees. At a high level, a file type identifies the standard or protocol under which the file was created, which further defines which programs can edit and play the file. This sounds, and is, really technical, but fortunately you don't need to delve into file types too deeply because Windows and Movie Maker take care of them behind the scenes.

What is important to know is that Movie Maker can input and output Windows Media Video (files with a .wmv extension) and Audio Video Interleaved (.avi) files, both standards created by Microsoft. You'll primarily use WMV files for burning to CD-ROM, playing back from your hard drive, sending via email, or posting to a Web site. In contrast, when you capture video from your DV camcorder, you'll usually store it in an AVI file.

In addition to these two file types, Movie Maker can import many files created under the MPEG (Moving Pictures Experts Group) standard; these files have a variety of extensions, including .mpg, .m1v, and .mpeg. Movie Maker can't, however, output in MPEG format.

Movie Maker's inability to output MPEG files is significant because MPEG is the file type used in DVD production, which means that while you can use videos produced in Movie Maker in DVDs, you'll need a separate program, typically called an authoring program to actually create and burn the DVD.

Movie Maker can also import (but not output) files that use Active Streaming Format (ASF), an older Microsoft standard that's now infrequently used. Since Windows Media Video Format has completely superseded the ASF format, the inability to output in ASF format isn't a big deal.

Note that Movie Maker can't input or output Apple QuickTime files, which have the .mov extension.

Bit rates

The bit rate is a measure of how much data is associated with one second of video. In Figure 3.2, you see the bit rate 1.7 Mbps. Mbps stands for megabits per second, which means that this digital video file has 1.7 megabits of data per second of video.

Bit rate is important because you typically want to tune the files you produce to suit the way the person watching the video will access them. For example, 1.7 Mbps is a fairly substantial bit rate, appropriate for files played back from a hard drive or CD-ROM drive. However, if you posted that file to a Web site to be played by viewers connecting via 28.8-Kbps or 56-Kbps (kilobits per second) modems, your viewers might feel as though the video file took forever to play. So when you're posting a file, one produced at a much lower bit rate, say 28 Kbps, is better.

Don't sweat it, however, because Movie Maker makes it very simple to assign a bit rate. Using the Save Movie wizard, shown in Figure 3.3 , all you need to do is pick a device or connection, and Movie Maker will set the optimal bit rate.


Figure 3.3 Movie Maker uses wizards like these to shield you from technical details.

Aspect ratios

Aspect ratio is a much simpler concept than bit rate. Many camcorders support two aspect ratios for shooting: 4:3 and 16:9. The first, 4:3, is appropriate when shooting video for display on televisions that have a slightly rectangular viewing area—the traditional shape of many TV screens ( Figure 3.4 ). If you have a widescreen television set, however, you can shoot, edit, and output in the 16:9 aspect ratio. Note that Movie Maker can produce movies in both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.


Figure 3.4 Consider shooting and editing your DV in 16:9 mode if your TV looks like that on the top, but stick to 4:3 for most traditionally shaped TVs like that on the bottom.

Frames per second

Frames per second (fps) is a measure of the number of frames per second that are stored in the digital video file and displayed during playback. The starting point is always 30 fps because the video you're capturing (in the US, anyway), adheres to the NTSC standard which has 30 frames per second. However, when you're producing files for the Web, Movie Maker may include fewer than 30 frames per second, usually 15 or fewer, because this improves the overall quality of the video. More on how frame rate impacts quality in the discussion of compression that follows.

So, what's the net/net on digital video? Any time you see a file on your computer, you should know that it has five characteristics that largely define it. These are file type, bit rate, resolution (display size), aspect ratio, and frames per second. So now when I discuss a Windows Media File produced at 320x240 resolution, 4:3 aspect ratio, 15 frames per second and an 800-Kbps bit rate, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

What is video compression and how does it relate to file type?

Excellent question—glad you brought this up. Video compression, quite simply, is any technology that shrinks digital video files for storage or transmission. Video compression technology always includes two components: an encoder, which compresses the file, and a decoder, which decompresses and displays the file.

Because they are equal parts encoding and decoding, all compression technologies are also referred to as codecs, for code/decode, or compress/decompress, depending upon whom you ask. Pretty much any time you see video on the computer, it's compressed, since uncompressed digital video is too large to be easily stored or displayed on a computer.

Here's where it gets a touch complicated. Some file types, like WMV and MPEG, come with their own compression technologies. For this reason, all WMV files are compressed with Windows Media Video codecs, and all MPEG files are compressed with MPEG compression technologies.

However, the AVI file type supports multi-ple compression technologies, as does the QuickTime format. So if you see an AVI file sitting on your hard disk, it could actually be encoded using any number of supported compression technologies, including the DV format, which is the compression format used by most digital camcorders.

Movie Maker does a good job of shielding you from these details, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where the distinction between file type and codec will be important. Still, when you talk about WMV and MPEG, remember that they are both file types and compression technologies.

In contrast, AVI is strictly a file type that can use an assortment of codecs. If you are capturing from a DV camcorder, virtually every time you see an AVI file, it will use the DV codec, but this isn't exclusively true.

Why do files on the Internet often look so bad?

All video compression technologies are lossy in nature. This means that they discard certain pixel-related information while they are being compressed, and they display a facsimile of the original image during decompression, but not the original image itself. This is exactly like the JPEG still-image technology used on most digital cameras.

However, digital cameras don't perform very much compression, so they can produce very high-quality images. Unfortunately, video files played over the Internet have to be compressed a great deal, or viewers will wait forever to watch them.

The key concept to remember with all lossy compression technologies is that the more you compress, the more information you lose and the worse the image looks. For example, the left side of Figure 3.5 shows the original JPEG image as captured by my brand-spanking-new Canon Digital Rebel (love that camera), which uses about 7:1 compression (compressing an image ordinarily about 18 MB in size down to about 2.6 MB). On the right is the same image, produced at about 60:1 compression, which absolutely destroys image quality.


Figure 3.5 The more you compress, the more you lose, with JPEG still-image technology and all video compression technologies.

This isn't to say that JPEG compression isn't a fine technology, since it's actually pretty competent. Rather, any time you compress an image or video file to a fraction of its original size with a lossy compression technology, quality is going to suffer.

To reduce the amount of compression applied to my videos, I reduce the resolution from 720x240 to 320x240 or less, and I reduce the frame rate from 30 to 15 fps. Still, at bit rates like 28 or 56 Kbps, the amount of compression required is still very significant, which is why most video distributed at modem speeds on the Internet looks pretty awful.

What about audio compression?

Another good question. While video gets all the headlines, audio compression generally accompanies video compression step by step. However, since audio files are much smaller than video files to start with, less compression is necessary. Still, rest assured that while you're choosing the output for your WMV files in Movie Maker, the program is compressing both audio and video.

What is DV video and how does it differ from FireWire?

I've touched on this question, but let's bang the point home. DV is a codec, or compression technology. DV camcorders store video in DV format on those little matchbox-sized tapes, and then the DV files are transferred to the computer during capture.

FireWire is a data transfer technology used to send the DV files from camcorder to computer. It's also known as IEEE 1394, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers standard, and as i.LINK on Sony camcorders.

What's nonlinear editing?

Ouch, now you're going for the throat! I'll do my best.

In the beginning, all analog tapes were edited on linear systems. Most linear systems involved at least four components: A, B, and C decks and the editing system itself ( Figure 3.6 ). The A and B decks contained the source videos, and the C deck stored the edited video.


Figure 3.6 Profile of a linear editing system.

Imagine that you shot three sequences and later decided to cut the middle sequence. Using a linear editor, you would copy (or dub in video speak) the first sequence from the A deck to the C deck and then skip ahead to the start of the third sequence on the A deck and copy that to the C deck. To create a transition effect between two clips, you would place the source tapes on the A and B decks, run the video through the editing system, and store the result on deck C.

This process sounds complicated and expensive because it is. Worse than that, every edit results in another dub of the original source video. As when you photocopy a photocopy, this redubbing gradually reduces the quality of the video, producing what's commonly caused "generation loss."

In addition, because production is linear, each change requires you to start the process over. While the editing system can keep track of your edits, the only way to produce the finished tape smoothly is to start the process from the beginning and run the final tape again.

In contrast, all digital video editors, including Movie Maker, are nonlinear. This means that you can cut and paste bits and pieces of video as desired, just like you do with paragraphs in Microsoft Word, without any of the generation loss that comes with tape-to-tape copying, and without having to rebuild from scratch. If you find a spelling error in the closing credits, for example, you simply change the text, click the Render button, and walk away.

Basically, a nonlinear editor can do everything a linear editor can do, with the following advantages:

  • Since your video is digital, once you capture it, you're done flipping tapes in and out, and you can use any captured video anywhere in the production, irrespective of where and when you shot it.
  • Once your files are digital, no generation loss will occur when you apply effects.
  • Since your project is nonlinear, and all your files are digital, changing details toward the end of the project is no big deal.

So what can I do using Movie Maker?

Now that you have some basic DV-related terms under your belt, we can move on to a more direct discussion of Movie Maker.

Movie Maker is a nonlinear editor. As with all editors, producing a video in Movie Maker involves basically three phases: importing, editing, and rendering and outputting ( Figure 3.7 ).


Figure 3.7 Movie Maker's three-step workflow: import, edit, and render/output.

The import phase. This phase involves bringing your source content into Movie Maker. Movie Maker can capture video from analog and digital camcorders, VHS decks, Web cameras, and other sources of video, or import assets already on your hard disks, assuming that it's one of the four supported file types (MPEG, AVI, WMV and ASF).

You can also import still images from your digital camera or scanner, and even images downloaded from the Web, into your video projects. Movie Maker will convert these to video when you're ready to render your project.

When you import video into a project, Movie Maker automatically adds any audio in that file to the production. You can also add audio from a number of different sources to supplement or replace the audio in the original file, and even create a narration track to add to the video.

Note that while Movie Maker can't directly import audio from a CD-ROM, Microsoft's Windows Media Player can, producing files that you can then import into Movie Maker.

Note that Movie Maker imports all audio, video, and still image contents into their own collections, discussed later in this chapter in "Creating and Managing Collections." Once you start working with any piece of content, Movie Maker starts a project, where it stores information about the location of all content and the edits you've performed.

The editing phase. After you import all project assets, you can edit them—that is, you can cut, paste, and trim, omitting all segments you don't want in the final production. Then you can add transitions between videos or still images and add video effects and titles to all visual assets. Movie Maker has a special feature called AutoMovie that can combine your source video footage and a background audio track you've selected and automatically create a music video.

The rendering and output phase. When you're finished editing your project and consider it complete, the next step is to render it. Rendering is the process of implementing all the edit decisions you made in the project. Movie Maker starts with the source files you imported and pieces them together, then adds all the transitions, titles, and effects you selected during editing, and then produces what Movie Maker calls a movie.

From there, you can output the movie back to the camcorder so you can watch it on TV, or you can burn it on a CD-ROM, attach it to an email message, or produce a file you can post to a Web site. Note that Movie Maker can produce only two file types: Windows Media Video and AVI files (and only AVI files using the DV codec).

Note that like most nonlinear editors, Movie Maker is nondestructive (despite all those nasty rumors you've heard about Microsoft). This means that it does not edit, delete, or otherwise modify any of the files that you've imported into the project. Rather, during rendering, it reads the information from those files and uses that data to create a new file that incorporates all of your edits.

Note also that the project file does not actually contain copies of any of the audio, video, or still image content you've included in the project. This keeps the project files pretty small, but also means that you can't delete any of this content until after you output the final movie.

What about producing DVDs?

As mentioned earlier, Movie Maker can't produce MPEG files and doesn't offer DVD authoring capabilities. You can, however, use files created in Movie Maker in a DVD project by exporting the videos from Movie Maker and then reimporting them into an authoring program like Sonic Solutions' MyDVD. Appendix A provides an overview of the process for producing DVDs with MyDVD 5.

If you're producing video for import into MyDVD or other authoring programs, it's best to output the file in AVI format using the DV codec. This preserves the quality of your video and provides a standard file type recognized by virtually all DVD authoring programs.

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