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Introducing iMovie

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Film reels
Image Credit: 

This photo, "Reel Relic," is copyright 2005 by Victory of the People on Flickr.

Brief Assignment Overview: 

This activity introduces students to iMovie software and reveals the range of rhetorical possibilities and effects that the program provides.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

This activity not only introduces students to a useful software program but also allows them to see the effects that simple decisions--transitions, music, editing, etc.--can have on a visual text.

Required Materials: 

iMovie, computers

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

I used this activity late in the semester, just before my students began editing the material they had filmed for their own documentaries.  Although some of my students were advanced film majors, many were completely unfamiliar with editing programs, and I felt that a brief introduction would be productive.  However, because this activity is designed with an eye toward that larger project, the more detailed instructions (see below) include ideas for using the program for their final projects in addition to using the program in class. I chose iMovie because it is mostly intuitive and user-friendly, and I narrowed down the activity to the tasks that I thought would be most useful and most impactful in editing a film.  I handed out the following instructions, and I let the students use the entire 75-minute class to work their way through them:

Your iMovie film should include:

(1)  At least one film clip (a screencast, a film downloaded from the Internet, or footage from your computer’s webcam).

(2)  At least one still image (a picture downloaded from the Internet, or a photo you take with your computer’s webcam).  To take a photo using the computer’s webcam, open the program Photo Booth (use the eyeglass icon in the upper right hand corner of your screen to find it), and take a photo.  When you’re finished, simply click and drag the image into your workspace in iMovie.  

(3)  A voiceover.

(4)  Nondiegetic music (a song or a sound effect).  Since we don’t have any songs in the iTunes library on our lab computers, you can find free music by going to  Find a song you want to use, click “Download,” and it should appear automatically in your computer’s iTunes library.  It should also appear in iMovie when you click on the music notes on the right side of the middle bar. 

(5)  At least one transition.

(6)  At least one title and end credits.

While they worked on these tasks, I walked around the room, helping and offering advice as I was needed.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

I familiarized myself with iMovie (mostly by watching YouTube videos) in order to prepare the instruction sheet (copy-and-pasted below).  Certainly, though, an instructor doesn't need to master iMovie for this activity to be useful.  Following the step-by-step instructions the day before and playing around in iMovie (1-2 hours) should be enough to prepare.  

Instructions For Students: 

Once you open iMovie, follow these instructions to create your own film:

Step 1: Obtaining Video

There are three main ways to acquire video for your film. 

  1. Shoot film yourself.  Clicking the camera button at the far left of the middle bar will automatically connect iMovie to any recording device (iPhone, camera, etc.) plugged into your computer.  If no device is connected, it will default to the computer’s webcam.  The video you record or import should automatically appear onscreen in iMovie in your “Events Library.”
  2. Download film from the Internet (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.). 
    1. Go to, and enter the web address of the film you want to use.  Click “Download.” 
    2. You may have to “enable” this website, which can be done by clicking the arrow that appears next to “inactive plug-in.”  Then click “Allow” when prompted. 
    3. Save the file as an mp4 file.  (On lab computers, it should save automatically to the desktop.)
    4. Take a screencast (a screencast is like a screenshot but with moving images; it records whatever is happening on your computer screen).  The screencasting software we have access to is Camtasia. 
      1. Find the program on your computer (use the eyeglass in the top right-hand corner). 
      2. Follow the directions to record what’s on your screen.  To finish recording, press shift + command + 2.  
      3. Then, in Camtasia, export the screencast you just created.  Go to “Share,” then “Advanced Export.”  Under the “Export” menu, choose “Export to QuickTime Movie.”

 To import film from the Internet or a screencast from Camtasia into iMovie, go to “File” in iMovie, then “Import,” and choose “Movies.”  Select the film you want to import. 

Step 2: Cutting & Editing

Your videos should now all be visible in your Event Library.  To edit them and begin making your film, simply drag them into your workspace (the large "timeline" part of your window in iMovie).  If there are major sections of the clip that you don’t want to use, click and drag over your clip while it’s still in your Events Library, using the yellow box to select only the sections that you want to use in your film. If you want to use the whole clip, you can right click, choose “Select Entire Clip,” and then drag it into your workspace. 

  1. Once you’ve dragged a clip into your workspace, you can click on the gear icon in the lower left-hand corner of the clip (it appears as you scroll over the selected clip) and select “Clip Trimmer” in order to more carefully choose which section of this clip you want to include in your film.   
  2. You may also want to divide your clip into parts (for example, if you wanted to separate two sections of the same clip to place in different parts of your film or if you wanted to apply video effects to one small section of a clip but not the entire thing).  To do this in your workspace, select the section of the clip that you would like to split by clicking and dragging the yellow box.  Then right click and hit “Split Clip.”
  3. Now that you’ve adjusted the content of your clip, edit it in other ways: select the clip and then the “Inspector” icon (the “i” with a circle around it in the middle of the middle bar).
  4. Play around with all the settings here:  Under the “Clip” tab, you can add video effects and adjust the speed of your video.  In “Video” you can adjust what your film looks like (brightness, exposure, etc.)
  5. You can also crop the frame in your video (or in a still photo) by clicking on the gear icon and selecting “Cropping and Rotation.”
  6. Also experiment with adding transitions between clips. Click on the rectangular icon (between the “T” and the globe) in the middle bar.  Select your transition and drag it into your workspace.  Adjust its duration by clicking on the “Inspector” icon or on the gear icon that appears in a blue box in the lower left-hand corner when you scroll over the transition.  (Remember, though, that transitions can be jarring, so you’ll want to use them very carefully in your final film project.)

 You may also want to insert still photographs.  To do so:

  1. Find an image (on the Internet, on your phone, etc.) or take one on the computer’s webcam using the program Photo Booth. 
  2. If you want to edit it, import the image into iPhoto and make your adjustments using that program. 
  3. Add your image to your project: You can easily import photos into iMovie from iPhoto by clicking on the camera icon on the right side of the middle bar.  To add them to your workspace, simply click and drag.  You can also just drag photos from your desktop or from a folder on the computer into the workspace in iMovie; it will automatically import them.
  4. Note that iMovie automatically adds animation to your photos.  Its default setting is the “Ken Burns effect.”  To make any adjustments to the effects (e.g. to delete it, to change where in the frame the effect stops and starts, etc.), scroll over the photo in your workspace and click on the gear icon that appears in the blue box in the lower left-hand corner of the photo.  Go to “Cropping, Ken Burns & Rotation” and play around with the options.  Selecting “Fit” will remove all effects from your photo.

Step 3: Audio Editing

You’ll want to think about adding audio to your film through voiceover, sound effects, and/or music.

To add voiceover:

  1. You will probably want to lower or silence the sound in the particular clip you’ll be talking over so that it doesn’t distract from your voiceover.  To do that, select the clip and click on the “Inspector” icon.  Select the “Audio” tab at the top and make the necessary adjustments to the volume of the clip. 
  2. Click on the microphone in the middle bar, and follow the instructions on the preview screen to create your voiceover. 

 To add sound effects and music:

  1. Click on the music note located at the right of the middle bar.  You should have iLife sound effects, iMovie sound effects, and whatever is in the iTunes library. 
  2. Click and drag the sounds you want to use into your workspace. Again, select the clip and click on the “Inspector” icon to edit the audio.  Select the “Audio” tab at the top and make the necessary adjustments to the volume of the clip.  Note: “Ducking” is a way to privilege certain sounds over others. Play around with the settings in this feature to achieve effects like decreasing the volume on a song just before an interview starts playing and then increasing it again as soon as the interview ends. (To achieve this, you would edit the audio of the clip or the audio track you want to privilege and choose “ducking” there so that the other audio tracks quiet down.) 
  3. You can also click on the gear in the lower left hand corner of the audio track and select “Clip Trimmer” to edit which parts of the song you want to use.  (iMovie will automatically start from the beginning of the song.)

Step 4: Titles

A “title” refers to any words that you place in your film. To insert a title:

  1. Go to the “T” icon underneath the preview window. 
  2. Click around for different styles (to see a preview of the effects, scroll over a title).
  3. Note that at least 3 of these options are particularly relevant to your documentary film: the opening credits, the “Lower Third” to introduce words that enter at the bottom of the screen (to identify an interviewee’s name, for instance), and the ending credits. 
  4. To insert a title into your film, simply click, drag to the point in your workspace where you would like your title to appear, and drop.  Decide if you want it to appear between clips or over a clip.
  5. Click on your title and enter the text in the preview screen.
  6. Double click on the title (or click the “Inspector” icon) to adjust the duration of your title sequences.  You can also drag them around in your workspace and extend them manually so that they are on screen during a number of clips.   

Step 5: Saving Your Work

Make sure to save your work on an online storage system or to a USB drive.  (Lab computers will erase anything on the hard drive as soon as you restart the computer.)

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I did not grade this assignment, but in retrospect I should have at least assigned a completion grade in order to keep them focused during class time.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

The activity went well.  I think students were genuinely surprised at how editing, music, transitions, titles, etc. can completely change the meaning of a piece of raw video. As I mentioned above, I think I should have raised the stakes a bit, giving out a grade for completion because the temptation to watch YouTube videos or listen to music was too great.  I also would have liked to screen a few of the completed films in class to use as the basis of a discussion about how and why the student made certain rhetorical and visual choices.

Course Description: 

I teach RHE 309K: The Rhetoric of Documentary Films.  The course considers both the rhetoric about documentary films (e.g. "what is a documentary?") and the rhetoric within documentary films.  In the final unit, the students make their own short documentary film in groups.

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