Watch Out, Spielberg

Today's easy-to-use video-editing software can turn tedious raw footage into a flick you'll want to watch again

by Harry Campbell

Harry Campbell

Dept.: H2.0 Labs Tech: Video editing Cost: Free to $100 Time: A few hours Steal | | | | | Splurge

The video of your little girl's piano recital is absolutely adorable, but forcing the family to sit through everything from her first no-talent peer to the milk and cookies afterward is just plain mean. Fortunately, the solution is at hand: basic video-editing software today offers drag-and-drop simplicity at a bargain price, and the learning curve has leveled considerably. But it's also powerful enough to create a final product that will impress your audience.

Here are the things you'll want to do with your video:

Capture it.
How you import, or "capture," video to your computer depends on the source. If you have a digital camcorder, you can do it through your computer's FireWire port. If your source is analog, you'll need an
external converter, such as the ADS Tech DVD Xpress ($145; adstech.com).

Slice and dice.
This is the most important step. Choose only those moments that help to tell the story, and eliminate the rest. Add digital still photos to round out the package.

Improve video and audio quality.
Many editing programs include filters and effects that can fix flaws in the original footage--eliminate noise from old tapes, enhance a scene's lighting, or placate your mother-in-law with a soft-focus filter.

Add music and sound effects.
Pull a song from a CD to play in the background, or slip in an expertly timed "D'oh!" for comic relief.

Ease transitions between scenes.
Instead of cutting abruptly from clip to clip, insert a fun animated effect or a subtle cross-fade for a more professional-looking transition.

Add titles, subtitles and credits.
Introductory titles and closing credits boost the Hollywood factor, and subtitles help identify when and where a scene was shot.

Export the finished project. Most consumer programs give you several output options based on whether you want to watch the video on your computer, post it to the Web, or burn your own DVD. If you're a Mac user, iMovie is pretty much the only game in town, but PC owners have lots of choices. On the next page, we've reviewed three key contenders in the sub-$100 category.

MICROSOFT MOVIE MAKER 2.1
Ideal for: Novices who want to dabble without dropping a dime We like: Step-by-step instruction
ovie Maker, which comes bundled with Windows XP, is simple enough to make even first-time users feel comfortable. Toggle between storyboard view (a sequence of boxes for dragging and dropping video clips in order) and timeline view (to adjust the length of clips and add sound effects, music and titles). Onscreen text leads you from step to step. Or use AutoMovie--choose the clips and a soundtrack, and it automatically assembles your video. What's missing? You can't adjust audio within clips or customize effects and transitions, and only the XP Media Center version can create DVDs. Free; microsoft.com ADOBE PREMIERE ELEMENTS Ideal for: Those not frightened by a complex interface We like: Array of features

Adobe takes the same approach with its new Premiere Pro/Elements duo (Premiere is the company's pro-level package) as it did with Photoshop CS/Elements, removing features that only professionals are likely to need and selling the junior edition for one seventh the price. Sounds great, except that the company forgot to scale down the complexity, making the Elements product line both powerful and daunting. For example, Premiere Elements has no storyboard display and no onscreen preview of transitions. And although the program provides a stunning variety of effects that the others don't--highpass and lowpass audio filters, pitch shifting, brightness and contrast controls, the ever-popular 16-point garbage matte--learning to accomplish these wonders is a challenge, made even more difficult with instructions divided between the printed manual and the software help files. DVD creation is easier with the included templates. Bottom line: Elements is an affordable option for those who crave Premiere Pro power, but newbies will suffer mental meltdown trying to access the very features that set it apart. $100; adobe.com PINNACLE STUDIO 9 Ideal for: Users who want serious editing power and fun-to-use features We like: Sophisticated auto-movie; easy DVD making.

The latest version of Studio Plus is nearly perfect. With storyboard view, you can drag and drop your clips. Then fine-tune in the timeline view, which shows the clip you're editing and the one next to it for frame-accurate cuts, as well as dual video tracks for picture-in-picture and video-overlay effects. The SmartMovie system offers more options than Movie Maker's version. Don't have a favorite song to use? The SmartSound feature can create a surprisingly tuneful custom soundtrack to match the length of your movie, in your choice of musical style. Make your still images more interesting by smoothly panning across them and zooming in or out (think Ken Burns documentary). Audio controls are first-rate, including the ability to create surround-sound mixes and adjust volume moment by moment. Video and audio effects are plentiful; I like the Stabilize video filter that compensates for shaky-handed shooters. You also get a host of customizable DVD templates with pre-designed menus and navigation buttons. $100; pinnaclesys.com