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Desktop Hollywood

So you want to be a big-time movie director? Computer editing advances create auteurs from home video buffs
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

Video editing is the most exciting thing you're not doing with your computer. Think about it -- you can dust off that drawerful of tapes from birthday parties, graduations and vacation trips over the years and turn them into movies that won't make you flinch when you watch them. My father visited the other day, and I showed him videos I'd created from footage shot on a trip to Paris. The man sat still and watched intently, without fidgeting, without even a drink in his hand as a boredom chaser. What's more, he asked to see one of the videos again -- and this was a film without even a fleeting glimpse of his cherished grandchildren on-screen.

Frankly, I never would have inflicted the original, unedited tape on my dad or anyone else. Some sections go on way too long, others are too dark and herky-jerky, and that five-minute segment of jiggling pavement shot when I forgot to turn the camera off while carrying it around town is not a great crowd pleaser. Without editing, dreck. With editing, trés bien.

You can handle the technical requirements of creating a computer video editing setup -- honest. You may have everything you need already in hand, you may need to add some equipment to your arsenal, but you don't need a degree in computer science to make this happen. Before we get to the nuts and bolts of making this work, though, let's consider what you can achieve with a little time and a few mouse clicks:

Throw out the trash. The single most important task (and the easiest to achieve, at least from a software perspective) is cutting the boring segments out of your videos, leaving only the bits that people actually want to see. In truth, you'll find that the more video editing experience you have under your belt, the more ruthless you become, trimming away a lot more than you keep in pursuit of short, entertaining results. Happily, your video editing efforts never destroy the original tapes, unlike the old days when fumble-fingered folks tried to cut and splice original 8mm home movies. Experiment all you want, slice and dice at will -- you can always go back.

Change the order. There's nothing wrong with chronological order -- couldn't get through the day without it -- but it's not always the best way to organize a video. Once you have your clips stored on the computer, it's an easy matter to pull together all your museum-hopping vacation excursions into a sequence or segregate your wife's family from your own in a wedding video or piece together all the clutch plays from a Little League game into an entertaining all-star reel.

Create professional-looking transitions. The original footage you shoot with a camcorder jumps abruptly from scene to scene, but on the computer you can smooth out the progression with elegant fade-ins and fade-outs or shake things up with ostentatious swirling visual effects that would be right at home in the old Batman TV series.

Add music. Nothing adds atmosphere to a video like a little background music. For my Paris videos, I went for a touch of class with Gershwin's An American in Paris and a smattering of Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. For video of my wife's family hitting the buffet table at a recent anniversary party, it was the theme from Jaws. Whatever brave or foolhardy inspiration strikes you, creating a soundtrack from your CD collection, or even music you've downloaded from the Web, is a straightforward undertaking.

Add titles. Yes, we're talking ego-massage here, with your name plastered on screen as producer/director/editor/whatever. But that's not the sum total of text-worthy tinkering for your video projects. For example, you can identify the places you've visited right on-screen, either superimposing text over the moving image or creating separate title cards. Or go for giggles by spicing up the goo-goo-gaga footage of your adorable daughter babbling away by creating subtitles that "translate" what she's saying.

Include still photos. A powerful tool that's included in most video editing software, but is so often ignored by amateur videographers, is the ability to incorporate still images into your video projects. There's a reason professional wedding videos have made this a time-honored cliché -- people love the then-and-now contrast you get when you lead up to a current event with stills from the past. With some video editing software you can emulate the effect used liberally by Ken Burns in his award-winning PBS documentaries ( The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball), panning across a still image instead of simply filling the screen with it. And speaking of PBS documentaries….

Add a voiceover. You do it already when you're sitting in the room showing off your video footage, explaining what's on-screen to the assembled audience. Now, with video editing you can build in a voiceover track, polishing all those stories you like to tell until they positively glow with rapier wit, then making them a permanent part of the presentation. Another audio possibility: add sound effects to your production.

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