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iMovie '09 high-definition fail

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The world of home movie creation is an increasingly exciting one. Digital files are easier to store and make sense of, and our computers are becoming powerful enough that editing and sharing all that footage is no longer difficult. iMovie is the poster child for this change: it has made directors out of many who would otherwise have left their movies raw or sitting in the camera media.

Now, in this increasingly HD world, there are a couple numbers that rule our lives. One of those numbers is 720. 720 lines of vertical resolution is the lowest bar for “true” high definition, and it is increasingly the standard in consumer video cameras, point and shoots, and even webcams. But it appears that the latest iteration of iMovie, included in iLife ’09, kicks 720p to the curb. This is troubling.

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There are a huge amount of devices, from the Zi6 I use for reviews to HDV camcorders and even DSLRs, that shoot to 720p. An HDTV must support 720p or better. 720p is, however arbitrarily chosen, the standard. Why, then, does iMovie push the even more arbitrarily chosen 540 vertical pixels as its standard? The lack of resolution information in the program as a whole is alarming in the first place, but even the freshest shooter would recognize that none of the output options match what their source, which they probably bought because it advertised 720p on the box. The little “Share” buttons are designed to fit Apple’s little ecosystem, and the program seems willfully ignorant of any other standards that may already be in place.

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Well, you say, you can just use the “Export using Quicktime” option, right? Sure, if you know what multi-pass encoding and bitrate throttling are. I do, so I did try. You see, it fails there too. “Dimensions: 960×540(Current).” I’m sorry, but no. The original, and the one in the iMovie folder, are both 720p. Project settings reveals nothing. Okay, okay, so I guess I have to manually set it to output 720p in the size panel. Not a big fuss.

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What the hell, 1248×702? Brother, that ain’t right. Oh, and you can’t change it. I guess there is literally no way for me to export 720p video from iMovie ;09, even though that is the most widely recognized HD standard in the goddamn world. It’s not that I’m going to really miss those 18 vertical pixels, but changing the video output size means loss of detail, and nonstandard video sizes are trouble in general. Sure, you can letterbox, but what’s happening to that extra information? Is the video window squeezed? Are they throwing it away just for kicks? It’s not really clear.

The real loser here, though, is the guy who doesn’t know better. He buys a nice $1000 1080p or 720p video camera, shoots some stuff, puts it through the iMovie grinder, and just assumes that what comes out the other side is as good as it gets.

Maybe it seems a bit nitpicky, but it’s bothersome that such a basic thing should be impossible. What is a guy to do if he doesn’t want his wedding footage to be shrunk, cropped, or needlessly re-encoded? I’ll tell you: get a PC. Because that’s where I’m doing all my editing from now on after this debacle. iMovie and its picky formatting, its weirdo interface, and its crappy transitions can go straight back to Cupertino.

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