With iMovie on the iPad 2, Video Editing Is Fun Again

4/8/11Follow @wroush

As much as I loved the original Apple iPad, there was one thing about the device that stuck in my craw: the missing cameras. It was an easy guess when the original product debuted 12 months ago that Apple would rectify the omission in a near-future version. What annoyed me was the certainty that at some point in 2011, I’d be obliged to drop another $500 to $800 on a new iPad. (I really have no choice in the matter, you see. I’m an iAddict.)

Well, I finally snagged an iPad 2 about 10 days ago, after five trips to the Apple Store (which is a story in itself). And, despite my high expectations, I have to report that it was worth the wait and the money. My intuition that the iPad would be a natural platform for shooting and editing video—if only it came with cameras and the proper software—has proved absolutely true.

I’m not saying that news crews, documentarians, and professional vloggers are about to drop their expensive videocams, their Avid suites, or their copies of Final Cut Pro in favor of the iPad 2 (although some might). But after shooting a fair bit of video with the device and authoring three video projects in Apple’s iMovie app for the iPad 2, I’ve concluded that this puppy clears the crucial good enough bar for anyone doing amateur or even semi-serious videography. The high-definition video produced by the device looks great. And iMovie, even though it was designed to be easy for novices to figure out, is surprisingly flexible and powerful.

But beyond all that, shooting and editing video on the new iPad is just fun. It turns out that when you’re capturing raw video clips and then trying to splice them together into something presentable, having a giant glass touchscreen makes all the difference. Something that used to feel like work now feels like play. Which, if you ask me, is exactly what’s so magical about the iPad in general.

I wanted to write about a few of the specifics that make video projects on the iPad 2 such a pleasure.

The screen. For years, makers of consumer videocams and digital cameras like Canon, Sony, and Nikon have vied with each other on two main features. First, it’s about the size of their devices’ liquid crystal displays, measured in diagonal inches. These days, 3-inch LCDs are common. And second, cameramakers have long differentiated themselves on  the resolution of their imaging chips, measured in megapixels: most new cameras these days can capture 10 to 16 megapixels in a still image (less for video).

In the screen size battle, the traditional camera makers can all go home now: Apple has leapfrogged them, perhaps permanently. Shooting still or video images using the iPad 2′s huge 10-inch screen as your viewfinder is an amazing experience—it’s more like holding up a window pane than a camera. (There’s potential here for some very cool augmented reality apps in the future.) And when it comes to editing, the big screen means you have plenty of real estate to browse your clip library, move clips around in your timeline, and view your evolving project.

Megapixels are a different story, though. Both of the iPad’s cameras are under 1 megapixel, which means they’re not great for still photographs. I guess we’ll have to wait for the iPad 3 for that.

The camera app. Shooting video on the iPad 2 is exceedingly simple—you just tap the red button to record and tap it again to stop. You can also adjust exposure by tapping on a specific area of the screen to optimize exposure levels for that spot. In these respects, the iPad 2′s camera works exactly the same as the one in the iPhone 4, except that it doesn’t have an auto-focus feature. But again, the big screen makes a big difference—it means that you can more easily frame shots just the way you want them, and you can see everything in amazing, 16:9 detail as you’re shooting it.

Yes, walking around pointing a tablet-sized device at people may look a little goofy. But people said the same thing about the first cell phone owners back in the 1970s. Believe me, tablet videographers will soon be a common sight from Chicago’s Grant Park to the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The editing software. If there was ever an example of consumer surplus, this is it. With the iPad 2 version of iMovie, Apple has packed much of the power of its $1,000 professional video editing program, Final Cut Studio, into a tablet app that costs just $4.99.

Just like Final Cut, iMovie lets you sort through all the media on your device—video clips, still images, and songs—and drag-and-drop them into a timeline area where you do a lot of editing magic. For starters, you can adjust the length of each clip, choose different transitions between clips, adjust the audio volume of each clip, add opening and closing titles and background music, and so forth. Unlike Final Cut, however, iMovie lets you do all that through intuitive touch-based gestures. If you want to cut a clip in half in order to insert new material into the gap, for example, you just use a slashing downward gesture—what could be more natural? At any point, you can play your video to see how the project is shaping up. And when you’re done, you can easily export your video to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, or CNN (there’s a whole “iReport” theme built into iMovie for producing citizen-crowdsourced news).

I could go on and on about iMovie, but you’d learn more by watching this 12-minute YouTube video from Detroit-based tech vlogger Mike Kukielka, aka DetroitBorg. My point is that the software is good enough to let you create some pretty sophisticated stuff. If you don’t believe me, check out “Goldilocks” from Majek Pictures. The small production company shot and edited an entire episode of this espionage-thriller series on an iPad 2.

Which all makes me sort of wistful. Last summer, before embarking on my insane “World Wide Wade Goes West” video blogging expedition across the United States, I bought a $300 Canon Vixia camcorder, which also shoots HD video—but in a format that can only be edited using expensive, professional software like Final Cut Pro. During the trip, my collaborator Graham Ramsay and I spent several hours every day shooting video on the Vixia and several hours every night editing it on my laptop and then uploading it to YouTube. It was fun, but utterly exhausting.

If I were doing the whole thing over, I’d just use the iPad 2. The iMovie app wouldn’t give us quite the same fine-grained control over music, titles, audio levels, video transitions, and so forth. But by doing the whole project on the iPad, we’d avoid time-consuming headaches like transferring video from the camcorder to the laptop and finding places to recharge both devices. (The iPad’s 10-hour battery life is an incredible blessing). Plus, Final Cut Pro, despite being an Apple product, is hard to use—there’s a reason they call it Pro.

I should point out that iMovie has been available for the iPhone 4 since last summer, and it works great. But shooting and editing video on the iPhones’ relatively tiny screen just doesn’t feel the same. My bet is that a lot more consumers will give iMovie a try now that it’s come to the iPad. And while many of the resulting videos will probably be standard summer-vacation-at-the-Grand-Canyon fare, some of them are going to blow our minds.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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