iMovie for iPhone: A more in-depth look

Yesterday I posted a video made with iPhone 4 and the new iMovie app, and gave some of my first impressions of producing videos on the device. Today I took some time to write a more in-depth review, for people who want to know if the iPhone really is practical for casually putting together simple video projects. The short answer: yes, it is, but you might get a headache in the process. Video from yesterday and review of individual features below. Impatient readers (tl;dr): Skip to the second-to-last paragraph.

After riding my bike around town for a bit, I connected to coffee shop wifi, downloaded iMovie, and got to work creating my masterpiece. The first thing I did, of course, was to start looking through the clips for what I want to add. Placing a clip into the timeline is straightforward, just tap the button to the left, select the clip you want, and you’re good to go; it’s in the timeline. (You also have the option of shooting a clip without leaving the app) I was already building my project after a grand total of 3 taps.

But it’s almost too simple. There is no way to view the clip in advance of placing it in the timeline, and since some look similar in the still image preview, finding the right clip is often a matter of trial and error.

Selecting a clip

My first impression of the footage: shaky. Very shaky. But I expected this, of course … it’s a phone (as easy as it is to forget that fact). As far as I’m aware, the iPhone does not have any form of digital stabilization, and I don’t think we can expect to see Smoothcam for iPhone any time soon. However, a wider angle lens would help make the jerkiness less intense.

My next impression: Oh no, why are my clips sideways? It turns out if you start recording with the phone in a different position than the one you will be recording with, it will lock in to that orientation, and your clip will end up sideways. iMovie has no feature for fixing this … which would be a very welcome addition. Two or three of my clips were unusable because of this, but at least I know better for next time. The same goes for upside-down shots, as you can see in the video at 0:43.

Sideways shot :(

In addition, one of my shots had a different aspect ratio instead of the widescreen 16:9 of all the 720p clips. Why? I used the front-facing camera. For the part where I place the iPhone on the ground to get on the bike and ride off, I found it more convenient to be able to see the shot while setting it up, and so of course the front-facing camera provided a perfect solution. Too bad the clip is 4:3 (or something thereabouts). I tried to cover up the black pillarboxing by placing the clip within the theme. Frankly, I should have known better, and now I know for next time. And in a pinch, the front-facing camera, though not as good as the main camera, still gets the job done. I’m sure it will prove useful for a lot of common situations.

Note the black bars on either side of the image

The quality of the main camera is pretty impressive. While it’s a bit overexposed in full sunlight, the footage still looks great for having been shot on a tiny sensor.

That’s pretty much it for camera quality. As far as editing goes, one feature I really miss in iMovie is the ability to trim a clip before placing it in the timeline. If a clip is longer than 30 seconds, trimming is a pain.

Once it’s in the timeline, tap on a clip, and it’s highlighted yellow. Drag the yellow ball on either side to trim. But want to drag it beyond the edge of the screen? You’re out of luck. No scrolling feature is in place for this, and you’ll have to drag in chunks of about 10 seconds to whittle down to the part of the clip you actually want to keep.

Trimming the end of the clip

This is only more frustrating if you want a few 3-second segments of a single longer original clip … you’ll have to keep trimming off the same large unwanted sections to get the little bit of footage you actually want. There is also no copy and paste function, which might have provided a simpler workaround for this frustration. This is helped a little bit by pinching and zooming out on the timeline, enabling you to see more and edit in larger chunks, but even zoomed all the way out, you can still only see about 15 seconds of the project spanning the screen.

Can’t scroll further, have to drag the timeline and trim again

Reordering clips, though, is a cinch. Hold down the clip, drag, and if you want it further down the timeline than you can see, the app will oblige and scroll for you. Ok, we know it’s possible … so why is this feature left out for trimming?

Dragging a whole clip

You can choose to edit in portrait or landscape, but your video is larger in landscape mode, the timeline has more real estate, and to me is just felt more natural.

Editing in portrait mode

Perhaps the biggest glaring problem with the iMovie app is not a missing feature, but a good old fashioned bug. The app currently seems to have a problem where, while adjusting the beginning or end points of a clip, the preview of that frame is inaccurate. If you try to trim the clip by 2 seconds, the preview will show the frame 2 seconds after instead. This problem only shows up in some instances, maybe 1 out of every 5 times I try to shave a few seconds, and makes it difficult to find the exact edit point you want for your clip. At first I thought I was doing something wrong, but it’s shown up several times and I’m sure it’s not a user error. I would imagine this is something we can expect to see fixed in a future update … let’s hope so, because it can get pretty frustrating.

Themes! Apple loves themes; they’re a pre-fabricated polish that makes even mediocre to bad footage watchable. At the beginning of the timeline is a little gear, and tapping it brings up a menu with a few theme options. Modern, Bright, Travel, Playful, and News. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more in the future, but these basics have most people’s needs covered. Switching between themes is easy, and when switching between themes in my project, all the transitions and titling still looked natural. The auto-location feature is a fun addition in the Travel theme … the app knew I was in Santa Barbara and displayed a pin on the map accordingly.

Selecting a theme

You can also choose if you want music or not, and while most of the samples are cliche and nothing special (with the notable exception of “1901” by Phoenix for the “Modern” theme), they work well enough for their intended purpose.

Unfortunately, there is no way to adjust the volume of the music, even if you select music from you iTunes library. If you choose to include audio from one of your clips, the music fades to a background volume for the duration of that clip.

A big complaint I have in regards to the music: there is no way to start it any later than the very beginning of your movie. If you want to delay the music and have, say, some talking before it starts, you’re out of luck, iMovie doesn’t give you that choice. And when the song ends, it ends. There is no loop feature, and no way to add another track after the first ends. I get it, Apple, you want this to be simple so consumers can pick up and use the app right away … but really? This is one place where it’s just glaringly obvious that a few simple missing features are really holding back iMovie’s potential.

Select from iMovie’s preloaded Theme Music, or your own iTunes library

Getting back to actual editing, interacting with the timeline is, for the most part, intuitive. Double tapping on a clip brings up a few settings … Title Style, Location, Audio, and Delete Clip.

Title style gives you three options for titling a clip: Opening, Middle, and Ending. The opening and ending are picture-in-picture effects, while the middle just hangs out at the bottom of the screen.

Adding text is simple, just tap the text box. But beyond choosing your theme, one of the 3 titles, and entering your own text, there is no customization of the titles. No font type or color selection, no positioning the text or images, nada. And the title is present throughout the duration of the clip you add it to … there is no option to, for example, add it to just the first few seconds.

Entering a title

As for the other clip options … Location lets you know where the clip was recorded and allow you to change it, and the Audio On/Off does exactly what it sounds like. As mentioned before, including a clip’s audio will soften the music.

As for transitions, a one second cross-dissolve is automatically placed between clips, and this default works well for just about anything. But you have the option (double tap) of adjusting by half-second increments, using a simple cut, or using a themed transition.

The themed transitions have snazzy graphics and I included one in the example video. But using it once is plenty. Trust me, home-movie-making-dads, the novelty will wear off quickly.

Attack of the postage

One problem I found with the cross-dissolve transition is that if a clip is not long enough, iMovie will not adjust the clip position. In my video you’ll notice the screen go partially black at one point (0:36) during the dissolve. I left this in intentionally to demonstrate the problem. What happened was, I stopped recording, and so when cross-dissolving, iMovie has nothing to put in there, so it just fills with black.

Lastly is exporting. It’s made very simple, with only 3 options: 360p, 540p, and 720p. Why they skipped 480p is beyond me, but probably has something to do with web video. Ask someone else. ;) I of course chose full resolution, 720p, and expected to sit around for a half hour while it crunched the project into its own file. To my surprise the export took only a few, mostly painless minutes. I timed my 1 minute 2 second project at just 1 minute 59 seconds to export. Not bad.

When I tried to upload from my phone, though, it began to compress. As far as I can tell from trying a few different methods, there is no way to avoid this, and there is noticeable quality loss in the compression. For comparison, view a version of the video uploaded via 3G here.

The only way to get your finished project online without that loss in quality is to connect the iPhone via USB to a computer, drag the file (Image Capture makes this easy) to your hard drive, and upload to your favorite hosting site. I know … soooo last decade.

Ok, I’ve already said a lot, and I’m sure there are things I left out, but I think I’ve covered most of the main points. iMovie for iPhone is a bare-bones video editing program with a few spiffy extras. Actually, it’s so bare-bones, I’m tempted to not even use the term “video editing program” and instead call it a “video rearranging program.” 15 years ago I was editing videos by recording back and forth between my parents’ living room VCR and a Hi-8 camcorder. Editing (and I mean editing, not graphic-adding) with the iMovie app is better than this method, but certainly not by leaps and bounds. If that seems harsh, take in to account that an iPhone weighs quite a bit less than a VCR, camcorder, and TV, and given that this is the first time it’s ever been possible to cut video on a phone, this really is saying a lot.

Apple has all the essentials in place. The nature of the iPhone’s small screen and processing power of course hold back its capabilities, but the main shortfalls of iMovie lie within the the usability of the app itself. Apple needs to fix a handful of problems, add a few features (which I’m sure can be done such that they don’t get in the way), and keep in mind that many of us want a little more than just the ability to rearrange our clips and place them into one of five prefabricated frameworks. With some reworking, I think the iPhone, due to the simplicity of its workflow, has the potential to not just set the standard for smartphone video, but meet the needs of almost all consumer-level shooting and editing. Convenience is key — Apple knows this — and they’re on the right track. But they’re not quite there yet.

Did I leave something out? Have a question about the iPhone 4? Leave a comment and I’ll respond as soon as possible.


5 responses to “iMovie for iPhone: A more in-depth look

  1. Pingback: More iPhone video goodness « jedd writes

  2. vimanaboy

    nice review! am i missing something or is there really no way to just add a simple fade in/out to a clip? most things i’d want to post online would be single short unedited clips, with a simple fade in/out and maybe a title.

    • Jedd

      Thanks. As far as I can tell there is no way to do fade ins and fade outs. And there is no way to put a cross dissolve before or after a clip. I guess you could have a short clip of just black to cross-dissolve with if you really needed to do it.

      • vimanaboy

        Yes that’s exactly the solution others have come up with, I see.

      • Jedd

        Yep, sorry I don’t have a better answer for you. As I mention above, the app is about as bare-bones as you can get for an editing program.

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jedd goble

Cinematographer of Two Story Films. I'm passionate about film and the way that stories can shape the world and change our perspectives.



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