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Photo Illustration by Simon Wan.

Slasher Movies
Software makes it easy to slice and dice home movies into Oscar contenders — or at least make them watchable

Most of your life is boring. Watch it on video and you'll see what I mean. While home movies can be fun, the sad fact is that for every moving Kodak moment (baby's first word, Uncle Albert falling off a bar stool), there are 10 minutes of unmitigated tedium as the camera lurches blurrily from face to face in the hope that someone — anyone — will do something interesting. ER it ain't.

It's not all your fault. Editing dead spots from amateur video has always been troublesome, requiring two VCRs for a start and expensive professional equipment for anything other than rough cuts. Thankfully, Hollywood is hitting the desktop. The just-released Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition has built-in capabilities that turn home computers into digital editing studios. Apple's operating system has similar features. These special-purpose software suites may not transform amateur directors into auteurs, but they can put some polish into home movies by allowing anyone to add in titles, dissolves, sound, and special effects.

Putting a digital film studio on your desktop is no bargain, however. You need to own a camera that records and stores digital images (no tape, no film). The good news is that, like their still photography counterparts, the price of DV (digital video) cameras is falling fast. These days you can buy one for less than $1,000. You'll also need a state-of-the-art computer. For my own plunge into the science of filmmaking, I decided to use an Apple Macintosh G4. That's mainly because my employer furnished one, but it's also because video editing is a power-hungry task and the G4 has plenty of punch. You'll need a voluminous hard drive. One hour of video takes up a whopping 13 gigabytes of disk space.

Properly equipped, I was ready to begin the artistic process by whacking into shape a home movie of a recent athletic event, a company bowl-a-thon pitting Asiaweek staff against the weenies at Time magazine. Like locust plagues, this bowling tournament occurs only once every seven years, so it had been duly recorded for posterity. The footage totaled 11 minutes, 37 seconds of gutter balls, pulled hamstrings, high-fives and shameless mugging for the camera. Applying the sage advice of a former editor who told me all stories are improved when reduced by half, I determined the optimum length for my movie was about five minutes.

After transferring the movie to the computer (a simple process requiring only the FireWire cable connection and pressing a couple of buttons), I was ready to try Apple's iMovie editing software, which is available as a free download from PC users have a wider choice of programs. Sony bundles its own Movieshaker program with its PCs, while many DV capture cards come complete with a basic editing suite. Another option is Movie Maker, which is packaged as part of Windows Me.

All the programs have the ability to detect the beginning and end of a video sequence, so footage can be treated as a series of individual takes. In iMovie, the bowling contest was segmented into nine different clips, from a few seconds to several minutes in length. All I needed to do was discard the chaff.

Cropping these segments is easy. The video footage, running in an onscreen window, is tracked below by a horizontal bar that's a graphical representation of your place in the sequence. A marker, called the "playhead," runs from left to right as the clip is played and can be stopped at any point. Cropping is as simple as dragging the playhead to the frame you want to cut. Click, and the software displays a pair of "crop markers" that act as bookends to isolate a portion of the scene. Drag the markers into place, click "crop" and the offending footage is banished to the trash can.

Clips can be easily arranged in any order simply by dragging them onto a visual timeline that appears at the bottom of the screen. I decided to run the clips in chronological order, but isolated a good opening scene and bumped it to the front of the queue. Using the cut-and-splice techniques, I was able to trim scenes frame by frame.

By the time I finished, the movie was the right length, but it appeared choppy and disjointed between takes. The solution was to insert transitions between some of the more jarring jump cuts. The iMovie software boasts 17 different transitions, from tricky warp effects to screen wipes, where one scene pushes another off the screen. Only a simple drag-and-drop was needed to place the right transition between two clips in the timeline. Next, I added a few titles to open and close the movie and the visuals were done.

The video camera's microphone had picked up a few witty comments and some thumping jukebox tunes — not to mention the sound of clattering pins — so I decided against recording a voiceover. But I wanted some music for the opening titles and final sequence. Adding music proved no more difficult than putting the CD in the drive, hitting play and clicking the on-screen record button.

The last step was to show off my masterwork.While it's possible to record the finished movie back onto videotape or to save it to a compact disc using a CD writer, I wanted to send the video out over the Internet. The final cut came in at just over five minutes, but at a hefty 2.7 gigabytes, it was far too big to e-mail or post on the Web. In a couple of clicks, I was able to compress the file into Apple's QuickTime format. First I made a really small file suitable for e-mailing, then a slightly larger one that I could post on our website. The latter took about an hour to process.

Like any young filmmaker, I was eager to hear the reviews. They weren't good. While the murky bowling alley footage was watchable on my desktop screen, once it was squeezed down for e-mailing, night vision goggles were needed to make out any action. And the bowling challenge? Asiaweek won the trophy — and has the video to prove it.

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