You've spent years accumulating home video on tapes that are just sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust except for the occasional moments when you access a tape, laboriously fast-forward to a certain memory, and play it on your DV camcorder's miniature display. You'd like to assemble some of these memories into a more effective format, but the thought of doing so confounds you. You have a PC or Macintosh computer in your home office, but where do you start?
To share your memories and amateur films with the world, you'll need to encode that video into a format that you can distribute, in some way, for others to see. Let's walk through some of the considerations you'll need to keep in mind as you venture into the exciting but sometimes complex world of digital-video distribution.
You have a few obvious video-distribution options at your disposal. I'll lay these out first, before diving more deeply into the details of video exporting.
Online. Most of the people you know probably have an email account or can access the Web, so online distribution is a good choice. The only problem is bandwidth: A typical home movie can often occupy hundreds of megabytes—even gigabytes—of space, and you can't upload a movie of such size to the Internet efficiently or affordably. Therefore, you'll need to export the movie into a smaller, lower-quality version that's more easily digestible. Finding the perfect balance between size and quality is thus difficult.
Computer or other portable device. An easy solution is to sit your friends or family members in front of your PC, PDA, or portable media player—or, better yet, bring the device with you—to show them high-quality PC-based versions of your home movies. This type of recording is particularly nice for those of us with Media Center PCs. Using the Media Center's remote control, you can access PC-based movies from the comfort of your most comfortable couch and watch the movie on your large-format TV.
DVD. Although the Internet is indeed popular, even more people have access to DVD players. With the right DVD-editing software, you can distribute copies of your movies that are almost indistinguishable, quality-wise, from the original unedited DV tape. DVD creation is a slow process, however, and you'll want to invest some time in understanding how your chosen software works.
Tape. You can optionally export your edited DV movies back to DV tape, providing you with a "master" copy of the edited movie that you can later re-import, if necessary. Most DV cameras include cables for hooking directly into a TV, giving you a way to view your movies on TV without a DVD player.
PC or Mac?
However you decide to distribute your movie, you're going to need some sort of movie-editing package, with which you can edit out the fluff, use transitions to ease breaks between clips, and maybe add a title, voiceover, or soundtrack. Editing movies is a topic unto itself, and although I'll be reviewing PC- and Mac-based movie-editing packages in the coming weeks, I'll now provide a quick rundown of your options.
Mac. One of the best reasons to buy a Mac is to get Apple Computer's iLife '05 digital media suite ($80, or free with any new Mac), which includes the fantastic iMovie HD movie editor and the iDVD 5 DVD-creation tool. These applications are elegantly designed and work reasonably well, with a few caveats that are noted below. For a step into a more professional world, you might also seek out Final Cut Express HD ($300), an enthusiast version of the high-priced Final Cut Pro product.
PC. As you might expect, things are more complicated for PC users. If you have Windows XP, you should play around with Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 2.1, a free add-on that is, in some ways, even better than Apple's iMovie (although it, too, has some problems, which I'll discuss below). But many PC users will need more than WMM. So many PC-based video-editing packages are on the market that I'm not even sure where to start. Two good choices, however, are Cyberlink PowerDirector 4.0 ($70) and Adobe Premiere Elements 1.0 ($99). The latter, like Final Cut Express HD, is a consumer-oriented version of a high-end video-editing tool. The software will require a lot of training to use effectively, however, because its interface is as Byzantine as it is powerful.
Once you have a tastefully edited movie, it's time to export it (or, in Apple terminology, share it). That means you're going to need to take the edited DV footage and encode it in a format that others can view. Here's where the problems begin.
DV footage is high quality, but it takes up a lot of disk space. For this reason, it often makes sense to export a master copy of your home movies in DV format, then create a compressed version for more general use. (Macs typically record DV files into a file with a .dv file extension, whereas PCs typically use an .avi file extension. Both can be identical, but depending on the software you use, there could be some minor differences. Regardless, a Mac .dv file should play fine on a PC and vice versa.)
The question, of course, is which format to use. You have many to choose from. Apple supports only its QuickTime-based formats, which are high quality but problematic if you want to play them on a Media Center PC. Microsoft, meanwhile, supports only its Windows Media Video (WMV)-based formats, which are medium-to-high quality but work well only with PCs and aren't particularly good for DVD source material. DVDs, meanwhile, can work only with the dated but reasonably high-quality MPEG-2 video format.
MPEG-2 is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it's universal. It works equally well in Apple's QuickTime Player on the Mac and in Windows Media Player (WMP) on the PC. It's the type of file you'll need if you're going to make DVDs, as I mentioned. And it offers decent file sizes, although you'll need to experiment with quality levels to create decent MPEG-2 video for the Web.
So what do you do?
My advice is to create a master video in DV/AVI format and archive it to a backup drive, server, or data DVD so that you don't lose any of your hard work. To distribute the video to others, you'll have to consider the inherent needs of each scenario and the machine you'll be using to export the videos.
Export to the Web or email. On the Mac, use iMovie's Share function to export to a Sorensen Video 3-based QuickTime format. Experiment with 160x120 (email) and 320x240 (Web) video sizes and various video-quality levels until you arrive at a compromise that's both viewable and reasonably small. On the PC, use WMM's Save Movie Wizard to create a 160x120 or 320x240 movie that's suitable for online use. Or, if you'd like to use QuickTime format, grab a third-party application that can export to QuickTime, such as Apple QuickTime Player Pro for Windows ($30), Cyberlink PowerDirector, or Adobe Premiere Elements.
Export to computer or device. Unless your home movies are unusually long, you're probably safe sticking with DV/AVI formats on a PC, so simply use your master movies. Otherwise, you should consider a lower-bandwidth format, such as Sorensen Video 3 on the Mac or WMV or MPEG-2 on the PC. Note that neither iMovie nor WMM let you export movies in MPEG-2 format, which is obscene. (iMovie does support H.264 exporting, but that takes an unbelievable amount of time). And WMM doesn't work with widescreen movie footage at all. To export to MPEG-2, you'll need a third-party utility such as Adobe Premiere Elements.
Export to DVD. Most DVD-burning applications will convert, or transcode, your edited movie into MPEG-2 format for you, so there's no reason to manually export a movie as MPEG-2 if you intend to distribute it via DVD. Apple's excellent iDVD 5 is a typical example, and it integrates quite nicely with iMovie HD and Final Cut Express HD. A few niceties to consider: There are two competing writeable DVD formats, DVD+R and DVD-R, so consider a dual-format DVD writer if you don't already have one. (Don't use rewriteable DVD formats, such as DVD+RW and DVD-RW, for DVD movies.) And although you can have fun with paper-based labels, HP sells DVD writers that use LightScribe technology to etch black-and-white images directly onto the label side of specially formatted blank DVDs from LightScribe. The effect is awesome, and if you're giving the DVD as a gift, it's a truly personalized way to distribute your movies.
However you do it, prepare yourself for some experimentation time. Video distribution, like video editing itself, isn't something that will come to you effortlessly. But the time you spend honing these skills will be well spent, especially when it comes time to export your next movie. By then, you should be an old pro.