Iain Anderson takes another look at iMovie - Is it a gateway app, Final Cut Pro lite, or more?
iMovie has been an important part of the story of Apple’s Mac-based video editing apps for many years. Indeed, the skimmable thumbnails and magnetic timeline of the reborn iMovie ’08 eventually led to the launch of Final Cut Pro X. Even today, these two apps share a lot of the same codebase, and you might be surprised to discover just how much of our favourite pro video app works just fine in its free little brother too.
If, like me, you’ve spent many years focused on Final Cut Pro, you may not have taken a serious look at iMovie, at least not on the Mac, in some time. But it’s worth taking a quick peek at life on the cheaper side, to see what new editors see.
iMovie even offers a few sneaky tricks which Final Cut Pro doesn’t.
A quick note first, though: here, we’ll focus on iMovie on the Mac. The iPhone and iPad versions of iMovie are great as quick mobile edit tools, but their touch-based interfaces make them different beasts to the Mac version. While you can share their timelines to iMovie on the Mac or even straight to FCP, it’s a one-way trip.
OK! Let’s take a dip into history to kick things off.
The History of iMovie
Late last millennium, video editing apps were a little more diverse in their approach; not all apps offered what we think of now as a “traditional” timeline, let alone tracks. iMovie arrived with a viewer on the left and your clips on the right. You’d move to a point on your source clip where you wanted to cut, split the clip up into two or more segments, and then drag the bits you wanted into a list of identically-sized clips at the bottom of the screen.
A more traditional timeline was available, but very much optional. While this “series of clips” idea was a very different metaphor to the more complex world of connected clips, slips, rolls and trims of today, it’s easy to understand, and a simple way to think about editing. You cut out the bad stuff and show the rest, right?
To a point, that’s true. If you’re making shorter versions of your home movies, these early versions of iMovie were fine, but no substitute for the more professionally minded Final Cut Pro, released in 2000.
There wasn’t much overlap in terms of functionality, and with no shared metaphor between the two apps, if you wanted to jump into professional editing you’d do well to forget much of what you learned in iMovie. (Final Cut Express sat between the two apps, but it was very much a cut-down Final Cut Pro 7 rather than a souped up iMovie.)
After many years of gradual improvements but no UI reinventions, August 2007 saw the release of iMovie ’08, a curious foreshadowing of the Final Cut Pro X transition just a few years later.
This version of iMovie introduced skimming — the heart of the new experience — along with a new timeline, but not everyone was happy.
It was a full re-write alongside a reinvention of the user interface, which will sound familiar if you remember the launch of Final Cut Pro X. The new iMovie had some great ideas, but at launch, it couldn’t support some common codecs, speed changes and some effects were missing, and so it simply wasn’t suitable for all users.
Recognising this, Apple kept the old iMovie available for download, and while most of the key missing features were added back in iMovie ’09, the timeline remained (and remains) completely unlike the old one. Skimming was the future, and the new iMovie became the core around which Final Cut Pro X (now X-less once more) was built.
Shared Features and Key Differences
iMovie and Final Cut Pro today share a lot. Their sleek, dark interfaces are pretty similar in broad strokes, with source clips in the browser in the top left, a viewer in the top right, and a timeline below. In both apps, you can skim and then organise your clips in the browser, watch everything in the single viewer, and assemble, trim, cut and reorder in a timeline.
In both, you can color correct and enhance your clips while adding titles above, transitions between, and music below. When you’re done, you can share your glorious creation with the world in a variety of ways.
Indeed, some aspects of iMovie are almost exactly the same as in Final Cut Pro. You can make multiple libraries and events, you can select ranges within your clips and mark them as Favorites or Rejected, and you can then choose to only see those “best bits”. That’s terrific, but without Keywords, more complex organisation just isn’t possible.
Although there are fewer transitions in iMovie, several of the basic Final Cut Pro transitions are present, with the same preview icons and the same basic functionality. All the regular backgrounds in iMovie will look familiar to Final Cut users, as will the titles, but controls are definitely simplified.
iMovie’s titles and transitions can all be found in the top left browser, as in Final Cut Pro X 10.2 and earlier. But it’s locked down: as there’s no dedicated Inspector, you can only make changes in a small line above the viewer, and many operations (such as moving a title vertically) are impossible.
As one of the key things I recommend to editors is to change the default settings of titles and transitions, this limitation hurts.
The nine icons atop the viewer allow you to adjust Colour Balance, Colour Correction, Cropping, Stabilisation, Volume, Noise reduction and equalisation, Speed, Clip Filters, and Clip information (including duration). How useful are these options? It varies.
Color Balance is fine for quick fixes, and has a Skin Tone Balance option which Final Cut Pro still lacks. The Color Correction feature offers a surprisingly effective way to adjust contrast as well as exposure, saturation and tint, while Cropping, Stabilise and Speed are relatively full-featured. You’ll need to crop if you want to resize and reposition your video, too; there’s no dedicated Transform option here.
Clip Filters feel particularly limited when compared to the vast sea of first- and third-party options in Final Cut Pro, mostly because you can’t change any settings at all — not even strength. Clip information is bare-bones too, especially when compared to Final Cut’s expansive, customisable Info tab.
The audio options are pretty spartan: there’s only Auto loudness, volume, basic EQs and a small set of audio filters — though ducking is, surprisingly, supported. Any clip can force other clips to be quieter by an adjustable amount, and this would be a welcome addition to Final Cut Pro. iMovie can do it, Premiere Pro can do it (with Roles-like functionality) but this is still a manual operation in Final Cut Pro.
Still, there’s still a decent bank of sound effects and music courtesy of GarageBand, and you can search through them in much the same way as you might in Final Cut Pro. Even better, when you add them into your timeline, you might forget for a time that you’re using Final Cut’s little sibling, because it’s not too bad at all.
It’s all about the timeline
At the end of the day, the core editing experience is probably where the main differences between the apps lie. Audio is a nice place to start, as it’s the most similar to Final Cut.
Sound effects can be attached below video clips, and you can attach as many simultaneous sound effects as you wish. Each clip has fade handles, and you can ⌥-click the volume line to add keyframes to automate volume changes, just like in FCP. But if you drag audio clips a little lower — and this is something you’d typically do with music rather than sound effects, you’ll discover something new.
Audio dragged to the bottom of the timeline isn’t directly attached to clips on the video timeline, as it usually would be in Final Cut Pro. Instead, a separate music layer sits below everything else, and you won’t lose or reposition your music if you change your mind about the first video clip in your timeline.
This looser form of connection is actually something I’d love to see in Final Cut Pro as an option, it works well for background music — especially with the automatic ducking mentioned above.
But that’s where the limitations start to kick in. The music layer can only hold a single clip at a point in time, and if you try to drag in another, you’ll be overwriting the first clip with the new one. There’s no facility to expand audio to control overlaps, but you can drag a clip just a bit higher and treat it like a sound effect instead. So far, so good.
However, as you trim your video clips, you might notice the audio waveforms stretching and bending around. Why? Because clips have a minimum visual size in the timeline, iMovie does not use a constant scale to determine the size of clip thumbnails, and the waveforms warp as they try to show the right thing. If you zoom in a bit, then clips will largely behave as you’d expect, but zooming out to show a whole timeline can be an odd experience.
It’s entirely possible for a clip that’s 2.8 seconds long (no timecode here either) to visually take the same space as a sound effect that’s 6.7 seconds long, and that’s pretty weird if you’re used to a consistent timecode ruler. Clips aren’t necessarily as long as they appear to be, so as a timeline plays, the playhead will speed up and slow down. It’s especially jarring to blade a clip (⌘B) and see it become two clips of the same apparent size. Transitions appear to be the same length too, so it can be hard to judge where one starts or ends.
The one thing that would drive me crazy if I had to use iMovie to edit is the inconsistent scale of elements on the timeline. It’s easy to rearrange clips and to trim them, but clips keep jumping around in weird ways, and if you’re used to fine, consistent control, it’s frustrating.
Another potential pain point is the handling of cutaways. It’s only possible to have a single layer of video above the primary storyline, and optionally a title above that. The video clip can, with a new icon above the viewer, be set as a cutaway with draggable fade handles, or have a chromakey applied, or become a split screen or picture-in-picture. Those last two options do allow for animation in and out, but as you’d expect, options are a little limited. There’s no way to fade between cutaways, only back to the primary storyline, which limits the complexity of your edits.
Basic trimming works, but you’ll find that there’s no tool menu here. Dragging on the edge of a clip gives a basic ripple trim, and to roll an edit, you’ll have to double-click on an edit (or near a transition) to enter the precision editor. This mode does let you see the true duration of your transitions, and lets you move clip edges, edit or clips themselves with all the finesse you might enjoy (or ignore) in Final Cut Pro. In or out of the precision editor, the nudging shortcuts (comma and period) work just fine, and you can add ⇧ to nudge faster.
Indeed, a Final Cut Pro editor dumped into iMovie on someone else’s Mac might hold down R for the Range Selection tool, and be surprised that it works just fine here in iMovie too, creating four volume keyframes after an audio change or deleting part of a clip. ⌘R brings up a Speed Editor, ⌘B blades a clip in two, and ⌥F makes a Freeze Frame, all (somewhat) like they do in FCP. Q, W and E will Connect, Insert and Append just like they should, and ⌥-clicking selects a clip as it moves the playhead. But there’s no Position tool, no way to add gaps, no compound clips, and crucially, no third party anything. What you see is all you can get. The lack of extensibility is probably the biggest limitation here.
As you might expect, there are some simple, cut-down options to export for Email, or for YouTube & Facebook, but the File export has some real surprises. Not only can you export to ProRes, if you choose the popular H.264 codec, you can dial in a data rate of your choice, from 3.3 to 26.6Mbps for 1080p, or 8.3 through 66.6Mbps for 4K. It’s truly odd that this slider doesn’t exist in Final Cut Pro, and that both the lowest and highest H.264 data rates here go way beyond any of the options in the more professional app. (The Final Cut Pro Feedback page is right here, by the way.)
Sharing in iMovie isn’t just about exporting to a file. You can opt to send an entire event to Final Cut Pro for further editing, so a non-editor could begin a rough cut (or mark up Favorites in the Browser) and know that iMovie isn’t the end of the road. If you ever encounter a client who’s started an edit in iMovie, you can finish it in FCP.
As well as the audio ducking and skin tone balance, there’s one more useful feature which isn’t in Final Cut Pro — but which you can move across. The Maps in iMovie can automatically move around a globe or a flat map to illustrate a trip, though there’s nothing like this in FCP. However, if you add all of these maps to a Project, you can then send that Project to Final Cut Pro where they remain editable, due to the shared underlying heritage between the two apps. You can pick new start and end locations in the Inspector in FCP, and they’ll work just fine.
Another iMovie exclusive is the Trailers. While they do end up looking a bit “samey” if you watch several back-to-back, kids love putting these together using their unique interface. And if you want to, you can bring those across to FCP as well.
Lastly, just one small thing. It’s easy to fade a cutaway clip in iMovie, because the video fade handles are as easy to access as the audio fade handles. Final Cut hides its video fade handles a couple of levels deeper, in the Opacity graph under Video Animation.
There’s no shame at all in using iMovie if you have simpler needs. I’ve done shoots for clients who use iMovie to trim, top and tail their videos, and as that’s all they need to do, the extra power of Final Cut Pro would be wasted.
Anyone considering getting into video editing could do a lot worse than starting out on iMovie; discovering its limitations before moving on up.
While the time-stretched, limited timeline is a bit annoying for professionals, it’s not going to bother everyone.
If you’re a seasoned Final Cut Pro user, iMovie is clearly not for you, but it’s quite possibly a tool you can recommend to your kids, to co-workers who need to trim recordings of their Zoom calls, or to anyone who wants to push beyond what they can do with the apps on their phone. If you know what it can and can’t do, you’ll know when to help them, and when to ask them to send you their project instead.
iMovie is a fine place to start, but Final Cut Pro is a better place to finish.