Video Slideshows with iMovie ’09

Posted on August 3, 2009. Filed under: Apple, Media, Photography |

Last May, I posted how I put together slideshows using Aperture and Final Cut. Since then, Apple’s updated iMovie significantly, and now many of the features which had been missing (specifically, precision placement of videos in the “timeline”) have been added to the consumer-level product, making it a viable choice for slideshow editing.

When I sat down to edit a slideshow for this summer’s Roseville Thunder team, I decided to give iMovie another try. To make a long story short, I’m thoroughly impressed, and I think that in almost all situations iMovie is finally better suited for this task than it’s more professionally-skewed brethren! Overall, the result is on par with or exceeding efforts which in the past had taken me several days (of working time) to complete in Final Cut Pro; this took me less than a single day of work (about 5 hours, all told).

Now, though, the blow-by-blow.

iMovie Settings

First, of course, I’m using iMovie 2009, a component of iLife 2009. IMovie took a major break from its previous incarnations in the ’08 version, seeing a rewrite from the bottom-up to make it easier for a novice to use. One of the drawbacks for those of us who’ve used video editing software before is that it heavily obfuscates the standard “timeline” approach we’d been used to. No longer does a project consist of a timeline stretching from left to right, with multiple audio tracks and multiple video tracks. Now, it’s laid out like a word processor (the timeline wrapping from line to line) and transitions between tracks are separate entities rather than overlaps on the timeline.

iMovie '09 interface

iMovie '09 interface

It can take some getting used to, but the layout makes sense to me. Perhaps I’m an easy sell, given that I’m not in an editing bay 40 hours a week, but the wrapping layout seems like a minor change and a major usability improvement. The most glaring ommission in iMovie ’08 had been the ability to fine-tune those transitions, performing rolling edits (so both tracks stay in the same spots, but one lengthens at the end and the other shortens at the start to move the transition) and audio drop-ins (to allow the audio of one scene to precede the video by a second or so, making a much more natural cut than a straight cut of audio and video at once).

IMovie ’09 brought those two features back in its precision editing mode. It also added the ability to time pictures in the timeline down to the frame level, which is critical for our purposes.

So, the first thing I needed to do in iMovie was to turn on frame count in durations. In the iMovie “General Preferences”, this is a checkbox labeled “Display time as HH:MM:SS:Frames”. I also clicked the “Show Advanced Tools” checkbox, which among other things exposes chapter markers in the video (which I find useful in slideshows).

iMovie '09 Settings

iMovie '09 Settings

Importing Photos

For this slideshow I knew up front that my overall organization of pictures was going to be around type of activity. So, before I did anything, I took the pictures I’d set aside for the slideshow and tagged each with one activity type: batting, fielding, catching an out, running bases, pitching, coaching, and “other”. In Aperture, I filtered to each of these in turn and set my “Order” custom field to be based on the general order I wanted in the slideshow. Since I had a lot of both batting and general fielding, I split each of those up. I sorted the pictures in Aperture by Order (the secondary sort was by image timestamp, so that kept things organized enough).

I dropped all the photos from Aperture directly into iMovie’s Project panel. I didn’t use the built-in “Media Library” tool because I find it way too hard to deal with my media library in that little quadrant of the screen, can’t sort on anything, and generally have no problem dragging from one application to another (it still mystifies me why Apple has put so much effort and emphasis on this rather useless widget!)

I selected the first picture, clicked the “gear”, then selected “Clip Adjustments” (shortcut: select the picture then hit the ‘i’ key). I typed in “1:00” for the duration (remember: this is Seconds:Frames; if you just put in “1” then you’d just have one-frame images!), and checked “Applies to All Stills”. This is only temporary, to get a good feel for the timing of the music.

Next, I dropped the music in from iTunes. The particular song I’d chosen I’d found on Jamendo and is CC licensed to allow for derivative works. It demands share-alike, and since I have no problem releasing this video under the same license, that’s fine with me. My main criteria for the song (besides a derivatives-friendly CC license) were (1) a fast pace, (2) no offensive lyrics, and (3) listenable for the several minutes the slideshow would take. MzW’s “Blind” fit the bill rather nicely, in my opinion, so that was that.

Once the song was overlaid, I played the video, counting beats. I found that there were four measures every six pictures. I also found that this was completely consistent from start to end (well, it’s techno-ish, so the fact that the drummer is a machine helps keep the beat consistent). 6/4 meant that a single measure was 1 1/3 seconds long, which conveniently enough turns out to be 40 frames (NTSC has 30 frames per second, roughly). Obviously, this is not always the case. Having to deal with inconsistent beats, or inter-frame beats (ex, two measures in 39 frames, meaning the pictures need to be alternating 19 then 20 frames each to fill a measure), would add time in the polishing phase, covered below in “Timing to Music”.

At 40 frames for a measure, I initially thought that all my photos would stay onscreen for 1:10 (one and a third seconds). I set them all to 40 frames, then played it to see if the pacing looked right. It didn’t; it positively dragged on. So, I knew that the majority of photos would end up at the next multiple down (2 beats, or 20 frames), and that held true through to the end.


Now, honestly, I jumped the gun here and did a bit of precision timing before I decided what to do with transitions. Fortunately, though, the timing I did preceded all transitions except for the intro, and I decided that the music wouldn’t start until after the silent intro, so I didn’t need to change anything after applying transitions.

The “theme” being used here which seemed to fit best was the “Bulletin Board” theme. So, from that, I got the intro overlay (in the “Text” area of the effects library) as well as various “chapter” transitions (between each of the major types of action shots). I knew that right up front I wanted to have the Roseville Thunder logo, which I pulled down from our website. By chance, the logo is wider than a TV screen, so filling the frame vertically chopped off a bit of the left and right of the logo; I decided that I liked that look and so kept it as-is (otherwise I’d have to import it into a graphics program and add white above and below, as iMovie doesn’t appear to be able to use any color background except black when an image is “fit” to the screen instead of “cropped”). I applied the “vignette” style to darken the corners of the logo. After dropping it in the “Bulletin Board” intro transition, I decided I wanted it to stay on screen a little bit before transitioning away; I found that I could change the timing of the “clip” (ie, the logo) separately from the “text” (the zoom in from the bulletin board to the logo), and so set the logo to stay up a little after the text was done. I then applied the first BB transition between the logo and the first picture.

By default, the music was “unpinned”, which meant it would start on the very first frame of the video (which would be the title/logo screen). I wanted it to start when the actual pictures came onscreen, so I dragged it slightly to the left until it’s start lined up with the start of the first picture. This “pins” the audio and gives it a different background onscreen. The color indication seems odd to me; I’m not sure what other significant difference there is between “pinned” and “unpinned” music tracks besides that one starts as early as possible and the other starts at a specific time. Presumably there’s more to that, but right now it seems like a meaningless and confusing difference in the visual representation.

I dropped transitions between all the major areas of the project. At the same time, I placed a chapter marker immediately following the transition, titled according to the action type. This doesn’t show up on the web, but it does on the DVD (or, I believe, if you download the video). It also shows up on our AppleTV, of course.

Here is a bit of an annoyance: iMovie tries to make the transition “no-impact”, yet can not allow the transition to span multiple clips. So, for instance, if you drop a transition (with a set 2-second transition interval) between a 40-frame clip and a 20-frame clip, you will end up with something like 31 frames of the first, 18 frames for the transition, and 11 frames of the third.

I think what iMovie is saying with the transition is that there are four “sections” to consider:

  1. Pure first clip
  2. Transition running with first clip dominant
  3. Transition running with second clip dominant
  4. Pure second clip
iMovie Transition in the Precision Editor

iMovie Transition in the Precision Editor

Sections “2” and “3” need to be the same timing (and add up to the timing of the transition); 1 must be kept larger than 2, and 4 larger than 3 (which is why we end up with 9 and 11 instead of 10 and 10 for the last two in the above case). To keep the transition “timing neutral”, the time for “2” and “3” get taken from the original time of the first and second clips.

Now, say you wanted to make the transition longer, above. Well, the second clip’s timing is the constraint there. So, go to edit the second clip’s timing. Note that every two frames you add here, one will actually end up in bucket “3” (and shift one from bucket “1” to bucket “2”), and the other will end up in bucket “4”. So, to make the transition last 20 frames, you need to add 2 to the bucket 4 (from 0:11 to 0:13). When you click “Done” you’ll see that your “0:13” changes to “0:12” (the other one went into the transition), and the “1:01” from the first clip changed to a “1:00”, and that the transition is now 0:20.

In my opinion, iMovie is trying far too hard here. Personally, I can see buckets 1 and 4 never being allowed to be “0”, but requiring them to be longer than the transition just makes for some goofy fast transitions.

If you don’t realize the shell game going on underneath the covers, fixing these timings is a maddening game. Change the timing on the first clip to be what you want, then on the transition, then on the second clip, but then you find that the second clip’s change didn’t really all “take” and only some of the increase to the transition happened, so do it again. It took me way too long playing around here before figuring out the rules iMovie appears to be operating under. IMHO, this is a case of an algorithm being too smart for its interface.

I don’t think I really figured out what to do here yet. I think next time I’ll try just leaving the transitions fast instead of trying to “fix” their timing.

Ken Burns

Usually, I eschew Ken Burns effects altogether, as they get too “cluttered”. However, I decided to give them a go here.

The default applications, though, left a lot to be desired. I wanted to keep the general “breathing” pattern (first picture zooms in slightly, second zooms out slightly, third zooms in slightly, etc), and did with a few exceptions, and tried to avoid too many radical movements.

One approach which worked rather well was to use KB to yield “motion”. By this, I mean that the main player in the picture should move “forward” in the frame from start to end. This can be done by zooming out and exposing action behind the player, or by zooming in towards a spot behind the player.

Another technique used here was a “scan” across the photograph, starting at one interesting spot and ending at another. For instance, the start might be tightly framing the player’s face, and the end has the face at the edge of the screen while showing the bat hitting the ball.

Overall, I think there’s definitely an “art” to using KB without letting the gimmick overwhelm the slideshow. As you can tell from the video, I’m still working on ironing out the details there.

Timing to Music

Once all the transitions were in place, I went into the groups and found “sequences” of shots. Here, I used a few techniques to tie them together. Generally, I half-beated all but the last photo in the series (sometimes even less). Of course, to keep the general timing together I knew that the series would have to add up to a multiple of 20 frames, so half-beating wouldn’t always work. For instance, if there are two shots in a series, putting one at 10 and the other at 20 frames would leave 10 frames in the measure, which would syncopate the rest of the clips.. So, I tried a few approaches here, redistributing the leftover frames amongst the clips.

A few times I put the emphasis on the first photo instead of the second, such as when the first photo is the bat smacking the ball and the second is the follow-through. I’m not altogether comfortable with how those sequences flowed in the video, though.

There were a few “longer” sequences I put in, which I treated as pseudo-video. For one of our pitchers I had a full sequence of her pitch, front-on, and put that in as 5 frames each; for another, I had a similar sequence but of a faster pitch, which I put in at 10 frames each.

In sequences, I find that Ken Burns effect ruins the effect almost always. So, between “Fit” and “Crop” I’d generally choose “crop” unless there was no way to get all the important bits of the frame on screen with a crop.

Once I had the sequences timed out, I repeatedly viewed the slideshow looking for musical hooks on which to hang sequences, and moved non-sequence images around to get the sequences timing right.

Once all of this was done, on a more “naturally produced” audio track, I’d need to then go through and listen for off-beat transitions throughout the video. Since the beat was completely unvarying, this was a quick pass for this video, and only found a few transitions which had ended up being a frame or two shy of what I’d wanted them to be.

Update to clarify: Note that iMovie ’09 also has “beat markers”, which are more akin to what I’d used previously in Final Cut. Since the music here was very regular in its beat, I didn’t use beat markers. Perhaps on the next project I’ll try those out! From a quick play, it works exactly like Final Cut’s markers: you play the audio in the Audio Clip Trimmer interface with your index finger on the ‘m’ key and tap out the beat as the song plays. For irregular-rhythm music this looks to be the way to go.


I’d call this “Publishing”, but Apple seems to insist on calling it “Sharing”. Whatever.

Once I had the movie completed, it was a piece of cake to put it just about everywhere under the sun.

First, I wanted to get it up on our MobileMe gallery so I could point the parents of the team at it (especially to make sure the end credits didn’t have any misspellings prior to burning a bunch of DVDs). I told iMovie to do that, and checked off small medium and large formats (no sense in “mobile” for this, in my opinion). The export process took about half an hour to complete in all three sizes, and then spent quite a while uploading to the galleries (for some reason uploading to MobileMe from here at home is always incredibly slow; one of these days I’ll have to try uploading from work to see if the fault is more our DSL upload bandwidth or MobileMe’s server capacity).

Next, I also wanted it locally to play on our AppleTV. Since this was on my wife’s laptop, and my desktop is synched to the AppleTV, I did a normal “Export” in the high-quality setting, copied it to my desktop, then imported it into iTunes and synced the AppleTV.

Finally, this video is the core of a DVD I promised the families on the team (along with all the 1-star or better “picks” of photos I took, in original resolution). So, I clicked on “Share | iDVD” and up came iDVD with just this video as the sole attraction. From there, I fixed a few titles, picked a nondescript theme (none of iDVD’s themes seems to fit with iMovie’s Bulletin Board theme!), and added the folders of photos as extra DVD-ROM material. The DVD was a cinch, as one would expect.

Nits and Conclusions

Okay, so here’s my list of things I don’t like about iMovie ’09 as a photo slideshow editor:

  1. The transition-timing algorithm is goofy, unintuitive, and makes getting the “right” transition hard instead of easy.
  2. Editing text inside iMovie ’09 is painful. For instance, the end credits were incredibly hard to type because the cursor just would not show up in the editor half the time. I also wanted to change the positioning of the “center alley” to better center the player list, and could find no way to do this in iMovie. Fortunately, though, I could just copy the text out, paste it into TextEdit, and edit it there (the white-text-on-white-background was somewhat alleviated by the use of an outlined font style, so this my not be a solid working solution in all cases).
  3. Before figuring out that text could be copied/pasted out to TextEdit and back in, it took me a long time trying to get the center-alley text style in a non-scrolling text pane. What eventually worked was using the scrolling title from scratch and then dragging a non-scrolling title in to replace it; since the actual text was kept there so was the center alley. Seems like a static credits with center alley title style would have been included. In the future, though, I’ll just copy my scrolling text out to TextEdit, edit the ruler however is needed, then paste it into a static text screen. Should work for multi-column credits too, I imagine.
  4. There is no happy medium between “fit” (all of the picture on the screen, black bars top and bottom or left and right) and “crop” (no black bars, can only be as wide or as tall as the photo is). A partial-crop, allowing the “crop” to extend outside the boundaries of the photo frame itself, would be nice to have, both for static photos and for Ken Burns animations. The workaround would be to add black borders on the sides of my images manually before importing them into iMovie.
  5. There is no choice of background color for “fit” photos and videos. Black is stylish and all, but hardly the only choice one might want!
  6. It makes my first-gen Dual G5 system crawl (Final Cut works like a speedy champ on the same system!) Essentially this project is not possible on an old G5-era or before machine; it really requires recent Intel-based hardware to get it done. By way of contrast, the app was smooth as silk on my wife’s new MacBook Pro.
  7. Seems like we’ll need a lot more themes to keep slideshows interesting. Presumably Apple will be coming out with new themes for iMovie each year, as they have with iDVD.
  8. Speaking of which, I expected to see matching themes in iDVD as in iMovie. I couldn’t find anything similar, so to avoid too much dissonance, I chose a very plain template for iDVD’s menus. This was an unexpected bit of tarnish on Apple’s usual hyper-polished interface design.

Overall, a much shorter list than I’d had for iMovie ’06, and none of them absolute deal-breakers!

In exchange, relative to Final Cut, the workflow here is significantly easier for a non-experts, and the overall process from start to end significantly shorter.

Overall, I’m looking forward to my next projects in iMovie ’09.

In case you missed the link, the finished product is on my MobileMe Gallery.

Any comments or advice? Add them below!


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One Response to “Video Slideshows with iMovie ’09”

RSS Feed for Tom Dibble’s Nuggets of …  Wisdom? Comments RSS Feed

Tom, thanks for the post. Very helpful! One question – have you run into any problems with centering the text (in one screen even through the text has been “center aligned” – it appears too far to the left. It seems to correct itself when the text is larger – rather pesky. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

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