When iMovie Isn’t Enough, Amateur Video Producers Can Go Pro

Xconomy National — 

When you hear people in the tech world talking about “consumerization,” they’re usually referring to complex business software that’s been overhauled to look and feel more like personal technology. But consumerization is washing over other parts of the software market too.

One of them is professional media creation and editing.

Photoshop is a great example. If you don’t want to drop $700 on the professional version of Adobe’s flagship photo editing program, you can get a $10 version for your iPad that has many of the core features of Photoshop CS 6. Similarly, Autodesk, the maker of 3D design software for engineers and architects, has been busy releasing cheap yet professional-grade mobile apps like the $5 Sketchbook Pro app for Android and iOS.

Overall, it’s astonishing how much power software makers have put into the hands of amateurs over the last few years, while asking a fraction of the prices they charge for their high-end applications. Yes, these consumerized apps come with a few compromises, but they also include user-interface improvements—especially on the tablet versions—that make them a lot easier to use than their full-priced counterparts.

Then there’s the contentious case of Final Cut Pro and iMovie.

Final Cut Pro is Apple’s professional non-linear video editing program. It’s been used to create dozens of major feature films, from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to Eat, Pray, Love and John Carter.

The Top Video Editing Programs
Adobe Premiere Elementsadobe.com$80
Apple iMovieapple.com/ilife/imovie$15
Corel VideoStudio Pro X6corel.com$60
Pinnacle Studio 16pinnaclesys.com$60
Adobe Premiere Proadobe.com$800
Avid Media Composer 6.5avid.com/US/products/media-composer$1000
Final Cut Pro Xapple.com/finalcutpro$300
Sony Vegas Pro 12sonycreativesoftware.com/vegaspro$600

Apple didn’t really need to consumerize Final Cut Pro, since it already had iMovie, a desktop editing program aimed at home videographers. Yet over time, Apple has simplified Final Cut Pro in ways that put it within reach of the amateur. The most drastic overhaul was the introduction of Final Cut Pro X in 2011. Besides remaking the user interface to resemble iMovie, Apple chopped the price for the program from $1,000 to a far more affordable $300.

Media professionals were initially irate about many of the changes, and some longtime Final Cut Pro users defected to competing programs from Avid and Adobe. But Apple has restored many of the features that were missing from the first version of FCPX, such as multi-cam editing. The upshot is that Final Cut Pro is still the leading choice of professional editors.

Now it’s consumers who have a tough decision to make. Let’s say you need to produce a video, and it needs to look good, and/or it’s going to be seen by a lot of people. Should you choose the easy path and use iMovie, or should you take the time to learn FCPX, now that it has a more consumer-friendly price tag?

I’ve shot and edited plenty of my own news-related videos in iMovie. It’s good for short interviews where you just want to give readers a sense of somebody’s personality. (You can check out some of these videos of Doximity’s Jeff Tangney, GiftRocket’s Kapil Kale, and HealthTap’s Ron Gutman.) And iMovie is also a fine choice for people like YouTube personality Shane Dawson. For video bloggers, humor and brevity are paramount, not production values.

My own position on Final Cut Pro has evolved quite a bit. Back in 2011, when Apple released an iPad version of iMovie, I wrote that the app “clears the crucial good-enough bar for anyone doing amateur or even semi-serious videography.” I even wished that iMovie had been available on the iPad a year earlier, in the summer of 2010, when my friend Graham Ramsay and I made a series of videos chronicling our cross-country trip from Boston to San Francisco. We shot those videos on a Canon camcorder and edited them in Final Cut Pro 7, and the technical hassles involved were so major that personally, I would have been happy to sacrifice the control and precision of Final Cut Pro for the ease of shooting and editing entirely in iMovie.

But Graham always disagreed about that. His feeling is that iMovie gives “quick and slick but limited results,” to quote from one of our e-mail debates. And sure enough, when the time came to produce my own video, without Graham’s help, I came around to his point of view. I’m now convinced that the results you can get with Final Cut Pro X or a comparable program such as Adobe Premiere CS6 or Avid Media Composer make the time investment worthwhile.

Here’s what changed my mind. Back in February, when we were getting ready to unveil Xperience—the new consumer section of Xconomy, which you’re reading right now—I decided we needed a 1-minute explainer video for marketing purposes. There are plenty of production studios around San Francisco that specialize in such fare, but Xperience is a lean operation, so I knew I’d need to shoot and edit the video myself.

Once I wrote a script and started storyboarding, it became clear that this video was going to have a lot of moving parts. I wanted to use some old clips from my archives, plus some new shots that I could only get with the zoom lens on my Canon camcorder. I wanted some animated titles. There would have to be multiple audio tracks for the voiceover (provided by Xconomy’s resident radio star, Greg Huang) and the music. And it would all have to fit together tightly, with subtle touches such as Ken Burns animations to keep the momentum going.

In other words, using iMovie—whether on the iPad or the Mac—was pretty much out of the question. But that meant I’d need to give myself a crash course in Final Cut Pro X. So I took a deep breath, downloaded the program from the Mac App Store, and plunged in.

My method was to shoot to the script, plug the newest footage into FCPX, and figure things out as I went. I could tell right away that FCPX was far easier to use than Final Cut Pro 7—New York Times tech columnist David Pogue has accurately called it “infinitely more powerful than iMovie, yet infinitely less intimidating than the old Final Cut.” In particular, I liked the way Apple has idiot-proofed the timeline, the area where you assemble individual clips into a narrative. No longer can you accidentally delete part of your video or bump the audio track out of sync by inserting something new in the wrong place. That’s an innovation stolen from iMovie.

But there were still a lot of things that I had a hard time grasping, such as the procedures for keyframing. (That’s telling the program how you want some element to change over time—for example, making text move from coordinates x, y to coordinates x+200, y+200.) And my two-year-old MacBook Pro, the same machine I use for all of my other Xconomy work, was unhappy about all the video rendering I was asking it to do. FCPX froze up on me at least hourly, forcing me to restart.

Fortunately, I had Graham on speed-dial, and he talked me through the most traumatic parts—and gave me some suggestions that saved huge amounts of time. Still, there were moments when my frustration was palpable. At one point I said I wanted to write something nasty about how Apple’s desktop apps are so far behind its mobile apps in terms of usability. That’s when Graham sent this very sensible note:

Before you get it in your mind to write a scathing piece about FCPX, it is important to remember just how much more serious this piece of software is compared to iMovie. When you start introducing software that is that powerful, it is bound to be more demanding on memory and resources. It is fundamentally a different beast, and although the interface looks kind of hip and sexy and similar to what you get with iMovie, the presentation is deceptive. FCPX is less stodgy than the older versions of FCP, but it is essentially the same high-end professional tool.

He’s right, and once the video started to approach its final form, I felt less resentful about all the effort I was putting in. Also, once I developed some better practices for managing my video files and hard drives, the program stopped crashing and I was able to work faster.

Whenever there was something I couldn’t figure out, I just called Graham or Googled it—it turns out there’s a huge array of free Final Cut Pro tutorials on YouTube. I also picked up some great tips by watching a course on Final Cut Pro at the software training site Lynda.com. If I’d watched more of the Lynda.com courses before starting the project, it would have been a very good use of my time.

So here’s the finished video:

Some of the stuff in the video could have been accomplished in iMovie, but much of it would have been impossible. In the end, I’m glad I learned FCPX, and I’m looking forward to my next project.

If you do choose to teach yourself a professional program like FCPX as you go, the way I did, be aware that the learning part is going to slow you down. I probably put about 50 hours into that 1-minute video. But now that I have a better understanding of the process, I could make something similar (or, one would hope, better) in a fraction of the time. I wouldn’t have sunk $1,000 or hundreds of hours into Final Cut Pro 7—but with the consumerized Final Cut Pro X, I had a fighting chance, and that’s a good sign for amateur videographers everywhere.

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8 responses to “When iMovie Isn’t Enough, Amateur Video Producers Can Go Pro”

  1. Uncle Bug Music says:

    Great article! While I am very proficient in IMovie, I upgraded to FCPX in the fall. Initially I didn’t have many issues with the software until I left it for awhile –
    Having no need for either program for a few months – but when I went back to FCPX recently I couldn’t do anything. For some reason the whole thing confounded me and I couldn’t grasp the timeline, add special effects or finish a project. Let me add that this is NOT the fault of the software, but rather, with my brain apparently. I have had to go back to using iMovie. I’m like the Charly from Flowers For Algernon of movie editing software!

  2. Interestingly enough you missed out on Lightworks video editing package the one thats free at basic entry and powerful enough to handle a range of tasks.

  3. Max Mishler says:

    Initially, I was hugely skeptical when Apple went with the new iMovie. I hated it! I eventually forced myself to learn it and was pleasantly surprised at how easy most things are. For small projects that need a quick turnaround, I feel like nothing beats it! However, I feel like I’m in the same position with Final Cut Pro X now. I edit video for my church, preparing sermons for both television and the web. It’s been all FCP 7 up to this point as we do some multicam ingest & editing. Now that FCP X has included this feature, I feel it is time to make the switch.

  4. BruceyK says:

    Nice piece.
    I’ve come to fcpx (and now love it) from a different, an slightly odd way. I bought fcp studio for my business purely to get my hands on Motion. I self taught myself basic animation with help from a bunch of online tuts (special mention to ripple training). I opened fcp7 a few times but was immediately intimidated. But was able to make several professional (ie paid for) short videos using motion – it’s very open, versatile and easy to use if you come from a photoshop layer-based creative background as I do.

    Ironically you can now get Motion for just £30 from the App Store which is insane for such a powerful app. I would say you could have easily made your video here using motion – even though its not really a video editing app, it’s fine for shortform (let’s say up to 3 mins) work.

    Meanwhile, for more ambitious, less graphics-based pieces I gave final cut a second look when fcpx came out – and I found it amazing. I’m still in the ‘learning’ stage, but I’ve made several finished pieces with it and I’m blown away but it’s speed, power and intuitiveness. I’d recommend it to anyone remotely interested in editing and film making – from the hobbyist up to professional.

  5. Donald Willie says:

    Yes, nice piece on FCPX. It was concise, and informative. Also, your video was nice.