Good enough: Producing Web videos with iMovie and a Flip

October 3, 2009 | By | Category: Conference Track: Multimedia, ONA09 Highlights

By Isabel Esterman

HD cameras, high-fidelity microphones and professional editing software can produce beautiful, polished videos.  But what if you need to get something up on the Web fast?

User studies show the public generally values flexibility and timeliness over perfection, said Tiffany Campbell, a producer.  Sometimes, quick and dirty is the way to go.

For breaking news or short companion videos, simple tools like the Flip camera and iMovie may be the best choice, said Campbell.   They may not produce documentary-quality films, but the production value is good enough not to discourage viewers, and they allow reporters to shoot, edit, and post a story in as little as an hour.

That sounded like a challenge to me, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I went to Campbell’s workshop armed with a Flip camera and a tripod, aiming to produce a short video based on the session. I have some experience with shooting and editing video, but I’d never touched a Flip before, or edited with iMovie, so I planned to give myself an hour to import and edit my footage.

The Flip’s audio quality isn’t much better than a cell phone, Campbell warned, and the camera performs poorly in low light.  Otherwise, it’s about as foolproof as a video recorder can get.  A button on the side turns it on, plus and minus buttons zoom in and out, and a big red button starts recording. The flip has a tripod mount on the bottom, and once I got it clipped in, I could easily move around the room, looking for shots.

The real advantage, though, comes when it’s time to import.  There’s no tape to capture, no intermediate codec to run through.  You just open iMovie, plug in the Flip’s built-in USB connector and hit ‘Import.’

I had a little trouble when I tried importing my own footage. iMovie ’08 gave me repeated error messages–a problem other workshop participants complained of as well. I switched to a computer with iMovie ‘09, and it still took two tries to get all of my clips into iMovie.  But even with these setbacks, I was ready to start editing in 10 minutes.  Compared to logging DV tape or flash video, this was lightening fast.

iMovie definitely has its shortcomings.  I found it hard to make precise edits, I couldn’t edit audio waveforms, and I had to rely on a few preset options for adding text. But I also found the limitations oddly liberating–I was free from worrying too much about artistic choices, and could concentrate on moving as fast as my limited skill would allow.

At 56 minutes in, I was ready to show my piece to a colleague.  He suggested tightening up a few sections, which took another 10 minutes.  After two minutes exporting to an m4v file, I had a finished piece, ready to be uploaded.  I took eight minutes longer than I’d hoped, and a few of my cuts were pretty rough.  I don’t think this video is great, but I think it just might be good enough.

Isabel Esterman, a freelance photojournalist and a graduate student in journalism and Asian studies at UC Berkeley, is a member of the ONA09 student newsroom.

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