Last year when we went on our trip to Utah, I had a brand-new video camera. A little Panasonic thing that could record onto SD cards like a digital camera. In some ways I found it was more fun than my Nikon still camera, especially in the canyons where I could sweep up to see the towering canyon walls far more dramatically than with a single still shot.

At first, no one wanted me to videotape them, but as we got into some of the more interesting hikes, climbing up and down rocks in the slot canyons, everyone seemed to enjoy the idea that this whole great adventure was being recorded.

The problem with taking videos on vacation is that it is even more time-consuming than just reviewing pictures when you get home. The raw video itself is fun to watch but to make it something really enjoyable, you really need to spend some time editing it…picking the good parts and cutting out all the little errors and goofy parts, adding titles and transitions, and so on.

So once we got home, I started working on pulling all those clips into something worth watching. With the help of iMovie, I quickly created a cool "trailer" that my friends loved. This also created very high expectations for the rest of the movie.

The Utah Trailer

Summertime house projects and nice weather got in the way of completing very much. I finished a bit more in the fall, but then was busy over the holidays. Foot surgery forced me to be sedentary in the winter, so I started cranking away again, feeling a bit of panic that I would still be working on this when we left on this years trip in May!

Finally, about a month ago we scheduled a movie night with our friends for tonight. The idea was to help us get in the mood for planning this years trip. This had the added benefit of giving me a deadline up finish this project.

So for the last few weeks, I’ve spent most evenings with earbuds stuffed in my ears, reviewing video clips and editing my movies. By last night, it was nearly done. This morning I got up a bit early and did some last-minute fixes to the credits on the final movie before work. I kicked off the DVD burn process while working so that I could keep an eye on it (it took about 2 hours to burn the DVD…although see below for info on issues with this).

In a way, I felt almost as much deadline pressure as I do when I have a tight deadline at my real job.

Some things I learned in this project:

  • Don’t overuse the zoom button. Many times as I reviewed my video, I found the perfect shot sweeping along a beautiful landscape, but then the camera zoomed in on some feature and disrupted the mood. It would have been better to just take in the shot, then zoom and do another sweep separately.
  • When building a movie from the clips, watch all the related clips first so that you know exactly what you have to work with. This also helps you identify any good themes you might want to highlight. For example, our first hike with real climbing was in Crack Canyon. After watching all the clips (about 40 minutes or so) I decided that the theme of that hike was us learning to climb and working together. So I picked music appropriate to that theme.
  • Related to the above point, when reviewing video clips for a project, take notes as you go. I didn’t start doing this till I got to my last few videos. For the clips I liked, I would jot down the time stamp and a brief description. When building my video later, I kept these notes handy so that I could quickly find each clip I wanted to use.
  • For my project, I did a separate movie for each hike. I then did an additional movie to highlight other memorable moments during the trip, particularly those that didn’t fit into the hike videos. It seems pretty obvious but I didn’t think to note down some of these moments when reviewing the clips the first time, so I had to re-watch quite a bit when making this last movie.
  • Background music is magic. Adding music can somehow tie a whole heap of separate clips into a single unified thread. As long as you pick the right song of course.
  • Background music can even work when you’re using the original audio from the clips, although you should use instrumental pieces for this and lower the volume so it doesn’t overpower the clip audio.
  • Make sure the date and time on the camera is set correctly so that you can be confident the times shown in your movies are correct. This wasn’t a problem with my video camera, but it was a bit of an issue with our still cameras since I did use some still pictures in the movies as well.
  • Even imperfect video can be used in your movie. Sometimes you can do tricks like using cutaways to use audio from one clip while showing a different clip to hide imperfections. Also, slow-motion and freeze frames can be handy when you only have a couple good seconds of a particular segment.
  • Slow motion was especially handy for some of my shots of birds and other wildlife. For example, I got a nice shot of lizard. Later, when watching it in slow motion, I realized he stuck out his tongue! Very cool and something I completely missed while filming.
  • Some shots that seem silly, like roasting hotdogs over a crackling fire, can make for nice ambience later.
  • For a particular movie or section, come up with a consistent method for transitions. For example, in our climbing movies, I used crossfade transitions between clips about different obstacles. But when showing each person conquering the obstacle, I just cut from clip to clip with no fading between them. This made each obstacle feel like a self-contained unit.
  • When using music, there is no need to use the entire song. If you need to cut off the song before it’s done, just fade it out. Even if it’s in the middle, this often makes it sound like it is really at the end.
  • When setting up scrolling credits to show at the end of the movie, be sure to allow enough time so that it that the text scrolls by at a readable pace.
  • Know the limits of your software. I discovered a little too late that iDVD, the software used to create the DVD, had a limit of 15 minutes of animated menus. At the last second, I had to change my menus so that I could burn the DVD. I should have planned my menus a little differently to make better use of those minutes. Or researched other alternative software.
  • Test things like DVD burning ahead of time. Multiple times. The wasted media is worth the piece of mind when you come up on your deadline. I did do this to a point…I burned a couple test DVDs early in the month. But I didn’t test with the dual-layer DVDs out of concern for the expense. Well, I’ve now wasted three of those expensive discs and have been unable to get one to work in our DVD player. I finally split the movie into 2 discs, but if I had done more testing ahead of time, maybe I could have had time to troubleshoot the issue and get it working.
  • When I am recording video with audio, I should never, ever attempt to sing (this advice might not apply to everyone!)

Some of this advice is probably pretty obvious, but these were all things I learned along the way. I am hoping that with these tips next year it won’t take me quite so long to put together the video from our Utah trip.

(Please forgive any odd typos here. I wrote this post on my iPhone because my laptop is still busy burning the DVD!)