Editing software and computers are now mainstream products. Once you have the hardware, including a digital camcorder and a FireWire port on your computer, you are ready to go. If you’ve purchased a new computer in the last couple of years, it probably already includes some piece of software that can edit video. The only question is: Do you need something more?
There are a few ways that we could categorize editing software, but really, the easiest way to categorize these products is by price:
Free and Lite!
In the Bad Ol’ Days, consumer software just couldn’t compete with professional software in terms of the quality of the output. DV has leveled the playing field, however, and there is no difference in the quality of the electrons emitted from iMovie 3 and the electrons in Steven Soderbergh’s raw footage for his 2002 feature Full Frontal. Granted, Soderbergh had a few million dollars to play with, a large crew of highly-trained professionals and performed a video-to-film transfer of his production, but there aren’t many edits or effects in that movie that could not have been done in iMovie 3 or Windows Movie Maker 2.
Just above the free apps in both price and features is "lite" software. Sometimes this software is also free, in that it may have come bundled with video hardware you have purchased, like your digital camcorder. Sometimes this software is a limited, express or SE version of a more capable application that you can upgrade to. By all means, go ahead and try the free stuff first, and don’t get an inferiority complex about it. If all you need are some titles, cuts and crossfades for your digital movies, you can stop reading this article now and go edit some video.
Basic: $150 or Less
The software packages available for $150 and less are often very complete suites of tools, designed to get you all the way from the start to the finish with style and a host of options. Ulead VideoStudio 7 ($90) is a good example. Instead of just editing video, VideoStudio 7 captures, edits and then offers a number of distribution options, including simple DVD authoring. What’s it got that the free apps don’t? For one thing, it is much more flexible in both the technical and the creative realms. Both analog and digital formats are supported and you can output to tape, DVD or the Internet. You get more transitions, more effects and more preset title animations. VideoStudio 7 even gives you a taste of multi-track timeline compositing with simple picture-in-picture overlays. This Ulead product is certainly not alone in this crowded category, so look for the features you want. Many manufacturers even let you download a demo version to try before you buy.
Advanced: $150 to $1,000
A thousand dollars is a lot of money to drop on a piece of software. We assume that anyone considering this level of software is ready to make at least a little money, find a little fame and may even aspire to a full-time career in video. The app that wannabe pros talk about most frequently is Avid Xpress ($995). If you want to go work for Sony Pictures on their next project, learning an Avid system at an accredited film school would be a good start.
There are a host of advanced applications that are not from Avid that will meet the needs of serious editors. Adobe Premiere Pro is the most popular app in this category, but there are quite a few other capable apps as well. What can these apps do that a sub-$150 app can’t?
For starters, there’s project management. For those of you shooting a couple DV tapes during your vacation, media management is not a big deal. But as soon as you start shooting three-camera wedding videos, you are going to have serious problems managing projects and media. Apple’s Final Cut Pro 4 ($999) is a standout in this area.
Serious timeline editing is also an important advanced feature. Besides getting you down to the frame level (or even the audio sample level), a number of apps offer a nested timeline structure, including the new Adobe Premiere Pro ($700). Nested timelines allow you to instantly expand and collapse complex projects.
By "complex projects," we mean projects with hundreds of clips on perhaps dozens of layers, all composited and animated independently. Compositing used to be the realm of specialized software, but we are finding that editors like Pinnacle Edition ($700) are very well suited for many special effects tasks.
Don’t forget the audio: if you need a serious audio tool (and you do), Vegas ($499) is a great choice. Besides noise reduction and advanced dynamics processing, Vegas offers surround sound mixing for your DVD projects. Add in Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding for another $300 and you are ready to fully envelop your audience in your movie.
These advanced applications often lack a number of the automatic features found in less-expensive software, and all of these apps (no matter how easy the marketing literature claims the software is to learn) will require many hours of use to master. Before you buy, make sure the software meets your technical needs as well. Most will edit HD and 16:9 wide-screen footage, and some will handle Panasonic’s 24p video properly. Do you need uncompressed YUV editing and rendering? What about professional color correction and waveform monitors? You can find software in this category that can meet those needs, but you’ll have to create a feature set checklist for yourself and then find the software to match your list.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the software you are using is not professional enough to do professional work. Figure out what you want to do, what features you need and then find software that has those features. Don’t look for magic software that will solve all of your artistic problems. Instead, try out some demos, read some reviews and ask some questions. Then get out there and create some content.
[Sidebar: Compatibility and the Modern Machine]
The latest software works best on the latest hardware. While software manufacturers genuinely try to make their software as compatible as possible, older hardware has considerably more problems than newer. What would we consider a newer system? At a minimum, we’d say you need a machine that has a processor faster than 1GHz in order to effectively edit video – and 2GHz would be better. Yes, we’ve been editing video on much less for many years (this writer edited using MediaStudio Pro on a P133), but it wasn’t until recently that many serious problems went away.
[Sidebar: MPEG Editing Woes]
Some applications offer MPEG editing. MPEG is a good distribution format, but, broadly speaking, it is a bad format for editing. First, MPEG is usually highly compressed and the quality can be marginal. Second, MPEG editing requires some serious processing power to work effectively. Unfortunately, many external analog capture devices now capture to the MPEG-2 format because of bandwidth and space limitations. We’d recommend you look for analog capture devices that transcode your video to the DV format. It may take up more space on your hard disk drive, but the quality is better and it is much easier to edit on your computer.