By Charles Haddad My son, the filmmaker. At age 13, he has already produced, directed, and distributed nearly a dozen movies. All this from a studio that's no bigger than a tissue box and sits nearly half-buried amid desktop clutter. And he releases his movies through a nationwide network of friends and relatives strung together through the Internet.
What I'm describing, of course, is how Apple's iMovie video-editing software is making possible a wonderful new use for Macs. This software, now in its second version, is doing for video what Macs initially did for desktop publishing -- turning a formerly expensive and cumbersome process into one nearly anyone can figure out and afford.
My son uses a G4 Cube, an Internet connection through America Online, and a 10-gigabyte hard drive. Thus equipped, he has made, to take just one example, a chronicle of the daily life of our cat, complete with narration, music, and sound effects.
CLEAN SPLICE. Don't get me wrong. You can't use iMovie to make a two-hour Hollywood feature film or even a 30-second television commercial. Elaborate image and sound edits still require a professional video program, such as Apple's own Final Cut Pro or Adobe's Premier, which sell for $1,000 and $550, respectively.
Nonetheless, my son is making movies up to five minutes long with an ease unimaginable in my college filmmaking class of 25 years ago. Back then, we used Super-8 film, clunky editing guillotines, and tape. But iMovie lets you quickly transfer video back and forth from a digital camcorder to your Mac via a FireWire cable. Not every Mac or camcorder has a FireWire connection, but most of the new ones do.
Once you've transferred video from a camera to your Mac, you can start editing with the iMovie software. Later, you can transfer your edited work back to the camera or distribute it to others via the Internet or a disk. Or you can post it on a Web site, in essence creating a mini-theater to run your movie.
The first version of iMovie worked pretty well, but it had some holes and flaws. Editing sound was difficult, control buttons were a bit confusing, and there was a very limited set of special effects. The second version, iMovie2, remedies most of these problems. It also offers a stylistic preview of what's coming in OS X, since iMovie2 sports the upcoming new operating system's aqua-blue design, rounded corners, and pulsating buttons.
PRATFALL. The aqua look is nice, but what really counts is the added functionality. Top of my list -- and my son's -- is iMovie2's ability to edit sound, if only in a limited way. Now you can split music and audio tracks, edit them separately, and recombine them. Better yet, you can easily lock an audio clip to a sequence of video. You can also extract an audio track from a video clip or paste one video clip on top of another while still keeping the original audio. This makes it easier to create cutaway effects.
With iMovie2, Apple has also added more special effects. You can transfer images to black and white or tint them sepia. And if that's not enough, you can download more visual-effects software from Apple's Web site, including the ability to reverse a video clip, slow it down, or speed it up. My son made a family movie that included a shot of me tripping over the clutter in his room in slow motion. It looked so funny that I forgot how angry I was at the time.
While using such special effects are fun, they really bulk up the amount of disk space your video uses. Luckily, Apple has added the ability to save movies as QuickTime files. And since they are smaller, they make it easier to distribute movies via disk or the Internet. Nearly every Mac has a QuickTime player through which to view such files.
TECH SPECS. As with most of Apple's new software, iMovie2 won't work on many old machines. You need a Mac with at least a G3 microprocessor running at 300 MHz. You'll also need version 9.04 of the Mac OS, a minimum of 64 MB of RAM (Apple recommends 28 MB), and 200 MB of hard-disk space. And, of course, you need a digital camcorder and a FireWire port.
On most new Macs, iMovie2 is included as part of the package. You can also buy it from the Apple Web site for $49. If you've always loved to play with video and wondered whether to upgrade your Mac, iMovie2 provides just the excuse you've been looking for. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for Business Week, is a Mac aficionado. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online