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If You're Willing to Pay, iMovie Will Satisfy the Inner Auteur

If Ben Stiller can direct a movie with a lucrative Heineken tie-in, surely Hollywood has a place for you.

What's he got that you haven't got? Millions of dollars and a beautiful, marginally gifted actress wife with unnaturally fluorescent white teeth. Well, Arm & Hammer sells toothpaste with baking soda and Apple (AAPL) ships every iMac, G4 and iBook laptop computer system with iMovie software.

Apple's advertising campaign is oddly compelling: Not because you've always wanted to elope to a tropical isle and don't know how to break it to your parents, but because we've all had the urge to climb into the director's chair. iMovie is your beginner's course. For from $1,500 to $3,000 -- you're going to need an Apple computer, which start at $799 -- anyone can take simple home-movie clips and turn them into snappy, finished products with music and effects. Weigh that against tuition payments for the University of Southern California's film school.

Reviewing the iMovie
Easy to master; you won't need a manual.
Professional-looking effects
Sticker shock for computer users in the sub-$1000 crowd. If you won't budge from Windows, you'll have to use a knock-off application.

First, put your existing opinions of amateur video behind you. We're used to shaky-cam images of household pets pummeling their owners' private parts on "America's Funniest Home Videos" or hours of overly serious wedding footage. With the iMovie software, minutes of wandering video distraction can be zapped with the touch of a delete key. The muffled voice behind the camera disappears and can be replaced by Motown's finest.

To start, you need a digital video camera and an iMac or later-generation Apple computer loaded with iMovie. If you're the producer and not the director of this piece, you're looking at immediate budget costs of around $3,000. Digital camcorders start under $1,000 and provide good quality video even at the low end, and the iBook or iMac basic setups will ring up a $1,500 bill. Your basic criteria is getting a camcorder with an input slot for a Firewire cable, Apple's Emmy-winning technology that allows digital camcorders to talk directly to computers.

All Systems Go

With the cable connected, iMovie imports the video from your camera and cuts it into chronological, thumbnail-sized snippets. You see all the clips that make up your video, as well as the handful of options iMovie gives you to embrace your inner Scorsese. Now, the fun begins.

Apple lays out a blank slate before you in the form of three synchronized timelines, one for video and two for audio. You can add in visual effects or a host of movie-style cuts from one scene to another.

For the audio portion, you can record into your computer's built-in microphone, use iMovie's limited stable of sounds or pop your White Album CD in the computer and drag the perfect track right where you want it to play. The two audio tracks allow you to use music in the background and still have dogs barking, cars crashing and other noises that go along with the video. There are two versions of iMovie out there -- new computers come with version 2.0 and have access to more sounds and editing effects.

"There was almost no learning curve. Maybe I'm some kind of savant, maybe I'm Spielbergian," boasts one satisfied amateur with a dozen iMovies under her belt. "I've learned so much about techniques of making film. Lighting, shots, transition from scene to scene. Now when I'm watching North by Northwest I notice how it goes from scene to scene, no transition, just quick cuts."

If you bought this year's medium- or high-end G4 machine with a "SuperDrive," selling for $2,499 and $3,499 respectively, you can take your prodigious talent from viewing on CD-ROMs or Apple's Internet standard QuickTime clips to the wow-the-friends iDVD level. (If you bought the low-end $1,699 G4, you can order the SuperDrive, which reads and burns DVDs and CDs for an extra $500.)

And you won't just be copying your movie onto the DVD; you can build table- of-contents pages with selected background music, fonts and thumbnail pictures. Apple has brought the price of blank DVDs down to $6 apiece from 2000 prices in the $40 range. While DVDs may look like CDs, there's a big difference -- each holds 90 minutes of video and takes about twice the length of the video content to burn. And for the Windows faithful, the new XP operating system from Microsoft offers a new version of Window Movie Maker, which has XP's updated graphical feel. (Movie Maker debuted with Windows Millennium.) Movie Maker is no iMovie, but it has a similar look, up to the point when you are seaarching for audio, transition and special-effects tools.

If you're dreaming of munching seared tuna with Hollywood's A-list, iMovie is your starting point. When you're on the red carpet, remember who gave you the tip.

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