For anyone who's ever physically cut film on the splicing block of a Moviola, digital video editing is one of the great technological leaps of our time.
Essentially, most video editing programs work in a similar fashion: once footage has been input into the computer and converted into a digital format, it can then be edited via the program. Effects and titles can be added easily, and many programs will even create complete DVDs.
The final result is, ideally, a video presentation as polished as anything appearing on TV, or a disc released by Hollywood. (Of course, how it looks is dependent on factors beyond editing, such as videography and lighting. But you knew that already.)
But there are many ways for an editing program to accomplish these tasks, and they do so with varying degrees of precision and complexity. So when choosing such a program, it helps to first take stock of your current skill level and needs. Are you looking to get started, or to replace an existing entry-level program with something more sophisticated? Are you looking to edit videos of your family on holiday, or crank out commercial videos of weddings, birthday parties and graduations to paying clients on a regular basis? Let's a take a few minutes to explore these issues–and a few other factors–in detail.
Make Sure Your Computer's Compatible
Most editing programs require a fair amount of processing power and memory. This seems obvious, but make sure your computer has the horsepower to handle the program you're considering–and upgrade if it doesn't.
If you have to install more RAM, while the case is open, consider installing a FireWire card if your computer lacks one–also typically an easy screwdriver installation. The vast majority of editing programs (or camcorders) support FireWire, making it a snap to import video from a FireWire-equipped camcorder, and also to control that camcorder's playback, fast-forward, and reverse functions via the FireWire card.
Check the Interface
Assuming your computer is up to snuff, it's on to the editing program itself. Perhaps its most important element is its interface. How comfortable you are interacting with it will determine how happy you'll be with the program as a whole. Some programs offer a degree of customizing, and it might be worth exploring how much you can tweak an interface to make it your own.
Check online for screen shots from various programs. A confusing interface to one person might be a sign of great functionality to another.
Get Under the GUI
Underneath the program's graphical interface, there are other considerations. For example, how well does the program support media other than video? Many video productions won't rely solely on video footage, but will also include a variety of still photos as a slideshow. If this will be an important feature for you, make sure your prospective editing program does a thorough job of supporting that.
Then there are video effects. There are a couple of issues here: the first is considering which effects you think you'll need for your productions, and determining if it's included in the editing software. The second consideration is, do you have any existing effects that you'll want to use with the new editing software? Does the program allow for importation of effects in the same format(s) as yours? Of course, you should consider that cuts should account for the vast majority of the transitions in your production, and that cycling through your software's transition palette tends to scream "Amateur!"
The same goes for audio effects. What sort do your productions need? Basic fade-ins/fade-outs? Reverb for narration? Or something more sophisticated? If you have an existing home recording program, you may be able to import some of its effects, if they're compatible with the editing program. Check that both accept DirectX (created by Microsoft and popularized by Cakewalk and other music software manufacturers) and VST plug-ins (short for Virtual Studio Technology, this audio plug-in standard developed by Steinberg Media Technologies). If the editing program accepts only one format, check to see if it's one that's compatible with your recording program.
Give some thought to what most of your productions will be mixed in: mono or two-channel stereo won't be a problem for most editing suites. But not all programs can handle surround sound: for example, Adobe's Premiere Pro is geared up for it, but its stripped-down (but otherwise fairly effective) baby brother, Premiere Elements can only handle stereo.
Do the Menus Look Tasty Enough?
Once a production has been edited together, and its sound cleaned up and/or re-recorded, it's ready to be given some finishing touches and then saved as a video to be uploaded to the Internet, or to be burned to disc.
When it comes time to burn a disc, consider what your needs are. Frequently, the quick, basic DVDs that many editing programs output are all you need. Some editing software does ship with somewhat more advanced DVD authoring software than others. If this is important to you, look into factors such as the types of DVD menus the editing program can create. Many come with default DVD menus to choose from, but their quality varies widely. Having a variety of professional looking menu templates can make your life much easier, especially if you'll be cranking a lot of the same kinds of discs (i.e. productions, wedding). Check to see that those menus look like something you'd be comfortable releasing to clients, and whether or not they offer sound, still pictures, moving video, and other touches we've become accustomed to seeing on the menus that accompany Hollywood films on DVD.
If you intend to get much deeper than this into DVD authoring, be sure to check out our DVD Authoring Software Buyer's Guide (Videomaker, January 2006).
Time To Hit the Editing Room!
So with all your software needs in mind, turn the page to review your options for editing systems. No matter which one you choose, you're in luck: no razor blades required!
Ed Driscoll is a freelance journalist covering home theater and the media for the past decade.