Apple’s iMovie and Final Cut give Mac users intuitive tools for editing their home movies from dry, amateurish “Wave to the camera, kids” productions into something that’s actually worth watching. But if you start with cruddy footage, there’s only so much you can do in post-production to improve it. Two of the biggest problems that can’t really be fixed later on are poor sound quality and a jittery camera. So when you’re ready to take your backyard epics to the next level, we offer the following improvements to your movie-making setup. They won’t break the bank, but they’ll definitely improve your work. Next stop, Sundance?
Adding a few more tools to your setup will result in much-improved footage and a better movie.
Difficulty Level: Medium
What You Need:
>> Camcorder to record your footage
>> Zoom H4 ($299, samsontech.com) or other audio recorder
>> Stereo minijack cable (1/8-inch male to 1/8-inch male, less than $2 on Monoprice.com)
>> Self-made SteadyCam ($14-$40, see Step 8)
>> Video editor such as iMovie (part of iLife '09, $79, apple.com) or Final Cut Express ($199, apple.com)
>> Audacity (free, audacity.sourceforge.net)
Most professional cameras have XLR connectors for using professional audio equipment like boom mics. But if you’re a consumer or serious amateur, you’re faced with two problems: professional cameras and sound equipment are prohibitively expensive, and consumer camcorders don’t have XLR ports anyway.
The Zoom H4 will capture much better sound than your camera's built-in mic.
But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with your camera’s built-in microphone. All you need is a separate device to record your sound independently. We like the Zoom H4 (samsontech.com); it’s got a novel way of positioning its microphones that leads to excellent stereo quality in a very small design. It’s popular with musicians, but filmmakers should check it out, too. The list price is $299, but you can typically find it for less online--and don’t forget eBay.
48kHz WAV is the way to go.
Switch your recorder on, and you’ll notice four buttons on the side. These offer you various quality settings. You could record in MP3 to save storage space, but because of a potential internal glitch we’ll mention later, it’s better to select the second button, set for High-Quality WAV format at 48kHz, the same frequency as your camcorder’s audio.
Make sure your clap is ultra-visible to the camera. Don’t worry if it looks freaky--obviously, you’re editing this part out once you’ve synced the audio and video.
Before you start recording, think of what you’ll have to do once you’re in front of your editing program: your main challenge will be to sync your audio up with your video. But you don’t even need a real filmmaker’s clapper board for that. Your hands work just as well. Once your audio and video recorders are running, clap in front of the camera. Later, you’ll simply match the visual clap with its audio counterpart in post-production. Make sure each time you stop your camera, you also stop your audio recorder, which makes it easier to match the video clips to the right audio files.
The open-source Audacity will solve our sync-drift problem.
When you’re done shooting, import your video footage to your Mac. But getting audio off the Zoom H4 is a little trickier. If you connect the H4 to your Mac and drag the files onto the desktop, you may notice something called “sync drift.” If you tried to sync it to your footage, you could match up the video and audio at the clap, but the sound would progressively and mysteriously (and infuriatingly) get further out of sync as you moved along the clip. For some reason, the Zoom’s internal clock is different from the Mac and your camcorder. The problem is easily solved, though: go to audacity.sourceforge.net and download the free Audacity sound-editing application.
This extra re-recording step is crucial for avoiding sync drift.
Rather than connecting the Zoom via USB to transfer the audio, use a stereo minijack cable to connect your Mac’s audio-in port to the Zoom’s Line port. Turn the Zoom on, select the track you want to use, and press the Play button. As you do, click Audacity’s Record button. You’ll be re-recording your audio onto your Mac in real time, but taking the time to do this will completely solve the sync-drift problem. Once you’ve reached the end of your track, click Audacity’s Stop button, then go to File > Export. Save the file in the AIFF or WAV format to preserve its highest quality. You’re now ready to move to your editing program.
The green bar is the sound; just drag it along the video clip until the sound and video of the clap match up.
Syncing the audio and video in iMovie is a little tricky the first time you do it, but it’s absolutely achievable. First, drag your video clip onto your project, and then insert the audio over that clip by dragging it from the Finder. Make sure the thumbnail slider is set to 1/2 to give you as much precision as possible when syncing the video and audio up. Next, mouse over the audio until you hear the clap--the audio meter to the right should also help you pinpoint it. Drag at that precise point until you locate the clap on the video. If you’re careful, you can be extremely precise. Finally, mute the video track’s audio (the audio from your camcorder’s mic), and you’re done.
Just match up the markers on the video (blue) and audio (green).
The sync process is much easier when working in either Final Cut Express (and naturally, this also works in Final Cut Studio). Start by opening the video clip in the Viewer window. Press the M key when the clap occurs. Repeat the process for the audio track, and add both to a sequence. The markers make it easy to line up your audio and video perfectly, and you’re ready to start editing with much better sound than you could have hoped to achieve with your camcorder’s onboard microphone.
If you don't want to track down the parts yourself, Lee's site sells a kit for $39.95.
Getting a static shot is easy: just make sure your camera is resting on something stable, like a tripod. Moving shots are much more interesting, but consumer camcorders are so light that unless you’re unbelievably steady, the camera will jitter, giving you shaky footage. Relying on your editing program’s image-stabilization feature is hit or miss--it almost always has to zoom in on your image, resulting in a loss of quality. You could also purchase a SteadyCam, which compensates for the camera operator’s movements and creates an amazingly smooth motion. But be prepared to pay thousands of dollars for one. Thankfully, Johnny Chung Lee was clever enough to design a DIY SteadyCam-like device, and posted instructions at 14dollarstabilizer.org. Head there and follow the instructions--the parts should cost you about $14.
Once you’ve built your homemade SteadyCam, don’t expect overnight miracles: You’ll immediately notice an improvement in your shots with more confident moves and very little jitter, but you’ll need to practice a lot for the best results. The device gives you a better hold and more weight to stabilize the motion. Once you learn to move with it, the results can be astonishing, giving you much more stable footage for very little money--and isn’t that what every low-budget filmmaker is looking for?