Editing a Homework Film on iMovie for the iPad

Pua, a character in Robert Gardiner’s film, Dead Birds.

This past week in the anthropology senior seminar we looked at narrative documentaries in anthropology and discussed issues of dramatization and aesthetics in John Marshall’s classic, The Hunters, and Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds. Both films were shot without sync sound equipment and feature both the heavy editorial hand of the filmmaker and a strong narrative voice (“Voice of God”) telling the story.

In class we spent some time discussing the aspects of social life that cameras are good at capturing—things like movement, color, texture, form. Other aspects of social life such as meanings, values, ideas, may be evoked but are much more difficult to capture visually. In the discussion we made explicit reference to David MacDougall’s book and the first few chapters of Grimshaw’s book.

While it is easy to critique the heavy hand of the “voice of God” narrative style for the way that it directs attention and works to guide and channel a viewers interpretation of what is seen on the screen, we observed the ways that the voice of a narrator also allows for abstraction, description of context that cannot be seen, and translation for an audience that may not have enough knowledge to interpret what is seen. Lack of a strong narrative voice gives viewers more freedom to interpret what is seen on a film, but this may simply reinforce preexisting understandings or stereotypes. Stopping at the simple critique of the authority of a narrator’s voice, also distracts from the influence of the filmmaker and editor in guiding what makes it into the film in the first place.

Homework Film: Narrative Documentary/Dramatization

The assignment for this week was to make a 5-minute film in the style of the documentaries we have discussed in class—filming people engaged in everyday activities and dramatizing them as “characters” through montage, cinematography and especially voice over narration. I asked that everyone in the class simulate a lack of synchronized sound by removing sound from their clips and only using voiceover narration. The narration of this weeks clips allowed for more control over the storyline and meaning than the simply silent film of the previous assignment. A few folks in class commented that they thought the narrative style was less engaging—because it restricted the freedom of the viewer by explaining too much.  I was very impressed by all of the student video clips, which featured a wide variety of interesting subjects.

Max, from this week’s homework film, Max Goes to the Source.

Last week, when I gave the assignment to the class, I knew immediately what subject I wanted to film: a young boy buying comic books at a local store. In Dead Birds, Gardner dramatized the story of a man and a boy, so I thought a father and son going to shop for comics would make a nice parallel. Comic stores are special places filled with fantasy objects—locations “behind the wardrobe” where imagination can be indulged and the real world escaped. They are colorful places with lots of interesting material to film. Both The Hunters and Dead Birds focused on grand human themes of hunting, survival, life and death. Comic books dramatize many of these issues. If I were an anthropologist from another culture, a comic and game store would be an ideal place to learn what we are about. Besides, I have my own fond memories of buying comic books when I was a kid.

Last Saturday I enlisted the help of my friend, Mike, and his son, Max, to spend a few hours shopping for comics at a local comic and game shop, The Source. Initially I had wanted to continue with filming in the same location of University and Snelling Avenues that was the site of my photographic essay and my black and white film assignments. I had thought it would be ideal for Mike, Max and me to buy comics at Midway Books, a place where I bought comics when I was a kid. Max, however, regularly goes to The Source. I had asked everyone in class to be as accurate to the everyday lives of their subjects’ activities as possible, and it would have made my film less valid if I had selected the location.

If you want to skip my description and comments about making the film on iMovie for the iPad and just get to the film, it is embedded at the end of this post (or you can view Max Goes to the Source on YouTube.)

Editing a Homework Film on iMovie for the iPad

Last summer I spent a few days playing around with iMovie for the iPad—seeing what it could do by making a few short films about my dog (The Postman and The Orange), and a short film about kids at an archaeology dig (The Dig) on campus. My dream was that there might be a day where I would be able to assign my students short videos that they could do entirely on the single device in an amount of time that it would take to do a typical assignment, and I was curious to see how much time it might take to shoot and edit a “homework film” on the iPad. I was also very interested in finding ways that the homework films could be made to resemble films of a specific period. In short, could students quickly and easily produce a short film in the style of historical films we would watch in class?

This semester most of the students in my class are shooting their homework films on Flip Video Cameras and editing them in iMovie for OSX. A few folks are using their personal iPhones and various editing software for PCs. What is clear, however, is that on average editing the film takes the largest proportion of the total time spent making a film. In some cases this is a commentary on the students’ ability with technology, in other cases, however, it is just the reality of moving around numerous video files, dealing with them in the software program and exporting the result. Admittedly, this is already a pretty easy process on iMovie for OSX.

This past week, however, when I sat down at my desktop to begin working on Max Goes to the Source, I decided to try something new and edit my entire film assignment on iMovie for the iPad. As with my previous experiences with editing on the iPad, it was very enjoyable, dead simple, and never crashed. Rather than sit hunched over my desk, I sat in a comfortable chair in my living room, and in just about an hour I had put together the entire film (not including processing time, which added about an additional 20 minutes.) I am still impressed that I could do the whole thing by touch on the iPad. It is easy to imagine a near future where students will be able to quickly and easily compose videos for coursework in a wide variety of classes.

There are lots of tutorials online that walk through the details of using iMovie for the iPad, so I am not going to give a complete step-by-step how-to here. I am more interested in describing the experience and the implications I see for teaching film with the iPad.

Imported video clips in a photo album on the iPad.

While iPhoto was designed to catalog photographic images and not video, it actually works very nicely for organizing sets of video clips for a single project. Unlike my earlier experiments, this film was not shot on the iPad, so I needed to move the video clips from the Flip Video Camera into iPhoto. Since the Flip Cameras have been discontinued and the FlipShare software is no longer compatible with the latest Mac OS, I needed to “drag and drop” the files from the camera into iPhoto. After doing this I put them in their own album, and gave them a memorable tag.

Once I had all of the film clips for the project transferred over into iPhoto, I needed to move the album to the iPad using iTunes. This was easily done by selecting the iPad, choosing the photos tab, selecting the album name with my video clips in it, and syncing it. It is important, however, to check the small box that says “transfer videos.” After the synch is complete, all of the video clips were on the iPad and ready to use.

iMovie is so easy to use that it blows my mind. Once in iMovie, the imported video clips appear in the upper left corner frame. Each clip can be easily scrolled through and the length can be edited with just a swipe of the finger. A double tap on the clip sends it to the film’s timeline at the bottom. Once in the timeline, clips can be edited by double-tapping on them, or moved around by tapping and dragging. Transitions can be easily modified and music clips and photos can be added by selecting the corresponding icon. Once I sat down and began to edit, it was amazing how fast the general outlines of the film came together. Within 45 minutes I had basically a ten-minute rough draft finished. Because iMovie makes it so easy to move and adjust clip lengths on the fly, it took another 15-20 additional minutes to edit, clip and condense things so I could get down to the assigned 5 minutes. I didn’t have enough time to write out a proper script for the film, but with iMovie, adding a voice-over track is as simple as a single button—the little microphone button on the left side of the screen.

Editing a homework film on the iPad.

While just about any video editing software can take care of the basics of editing a film, working with the clips by touch is an entirely different experience that must be tried to be appreciated. It seems much more natural and intuitive. At first I thought I could compare editing video on iMovie to using Word or Pages to write, but they are entirely different experiences. Typing on a page takes words and ideas and transforms them into text—subject to grammar and spelling rules. On the iPad images are manipulated with a touch, a pinch and a drag of the finger. Using a touch interface has the effect of making the computer disappear as a tool, so that it feels like I am working directly with the film clips. They respond like physical things when I move them on the iPad’s screen. The physicality of the editing process, is actually fun. When, for example, I want to remove a clip from the film—accomplished by a flick of the finger—the clip is kicked out of the timeline disappearing in a puff of digital smoke and a satisfying poof sound. It would be much easier to edit an academic paper if I had that kind of incentive to remove chunks of written text!

After finishing my film the only thing left to do was to give it that period look. To do this I chose iSupr8 a really superb app that processes videos to look like vintage film stock. iSupr8 seems to work best with clips that are shot from within the application, but since I had already edited my film, I had no choice but to use it for post-processing. To do this was simply a matter of using iMovie to export my film into the iPad’s photo app, and then using iSupr8 to import the film from the Photo app for processing. Once in iSupr8 all I needed to do was select the film stock that I wanted and begin “developing” it. For this film, I chose the standard Super-8 film stock, but removed all of the added effects. While it doesn’t look exactly like the early 1960’s films that we were studying this past week, it was close enough for my purposes.

So, in the end I spent about 90 minutes filming Max and Mike buying comics, a few minutes moving files around, and hour of editing and about 20 minutes processing the film.  That is just about three hours for a five-minute video—not that much longer than a night’s reading assignment in one of my classes. In other words, making a film on an iPad can easily be a single night’s homework assignment.

Now I just have to figure out a way to get an iPad in the hands of each one of the students in my class!

Here is last week’s completed assignment!

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