Putting iLife to Work
Posted Jun 1, 2004

Synopsis: Apple's iLife '04 boasts enough power and features that more and more post-production and videography professionals are using it in their studios. What does this consumer app have going for it that makes it a hit with the pros?

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced iLife '04 at this year's Macworld in San Francisco, he said it was like "Microsoft Office for the rest of your life." Turns out that's the catch phrase for the entire iLife '04 advertising campaign, an attempt to convince consumers that what Microsoft did for the office—provide an integrated suite of applications that let people accomplish all the basic tasks of professional life, from word processing to accounting to presentations—Apple would now do for the home.

That's assuming, of course, that you consider your music, movies, and photos as crucial to your personal life as your documents and calendar are to your work life. Best not to probe that "Office for the rest of your life" analogy too deeply, then; iLife won't make your dinner, mow your lawn, or fold your laundry. But it's a sign of just how far we've come—or gone, depending on your perspective—that many of us do, indeed, take our personal entertainment that seriously and feel the need, or at least the impulse, to share and manipulate our tunes and pictures via our PCs, which haven't replaced the television the way the idiot box replaced the hearth, but are well on their way. And since iLife is available only on the Mac, what is the "Office for the rest of your life" campaign really, but a strategy to move more Apple-branded computers?

The thing is, anyone who took more than a passing look at iLife '04 couldn't help but notice that the tools in this latest version held plenty of promise for the office as well as the home. With timeline-based editing and more precise audio syncing in iMovie, more professional-quality menu themes in iDVD, and iPhoto's new 25,000 image capacity—not to mention the addition of the deceptively simple and remarkably powerful music creation software GarageBand—the iLife suite was flexing some pretty impressive technological muscle, strong enough that it just might come in handy in the studio as well as the rec room.

While Apple didn't necessarily design iLife '04 with the professional studio in mind, they aren't fighting the idea. And our hunch proved to be on the money: plenty of Mac-based post-production studios use iLife, whether it's for quick-and-dirty demo reels, basic projects that don't require professional-strength tools, or as an intermediary step on the way toward a final product made with Final Cut Pro or DVD Studio Pro. Whatever the application, they're using it—even if they're reluctant to admit it.

"It's totally unhip to say you're using a consumer tool like iLife," says Andy Stinton, who runs Toronto's Event Studio, a three-person production and post-production house that works with corporate and entertainment clients from Imperial Oil to MTV Canada. "You know, ‘We're professionals! We should should be using Avid or Media 100!' But there are some parts of a job," he says. "that are done more efficiently in iMovie than Media 100."

iLife Less Ordinary
Apple first introduced iLife at the January 2003 Macworld, though its individual components had been around for several years before that. The iLife approach not only emphasized the integration between the apps, but also brought the iPod MP3 player under the conceptual umbrella. And the concept was a simple one: every new Mac shipped would include the basic iLife components—iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, and iDVD (iDVD had previously cost an extra $49). [See Sidebar, "iLife by the Numbers."] Apple was giving consumers and professionals of all stripes basic video, photo, and music organization and editing tools whether they wanted them or not, and PC manufacturers soon followed suit. While there's no proof that iLife helped move computer boxes, it made everyone with a Mac a multimedia creator-in-waiting.

It also gave Mac-based studios another weapon in their post-production arsenal, and the professionals in those studios quickly discovered that iLife, especially in its latest iteration, was far more than just a consumer tool, according to iLife product manager Greg Scallon. Scallon says he sees iLife being used in the professional space in two ways.

First, there's what he calls "storyboard usage": When editors are working toward a more advanced project as their end result, they'll use iLife as a means to create a middle-stage version to show clients along the way. They can capture and edit with iMovie, then throw the rough edit on iDVD to get client approval or simply to give themselves a better idea of where they're headed. "Essentially, they create a mini-movie as a sketch tool," Scallon says, admitting that most editors and authors start again from scratch in Final Cut Pro or DVD Studio Pro for the final version. Still, the iLife apps make it easy to create and output that "rough cut" version, he says.

Most clients prefer screening copies on DVD rather than VHS these days, and iDVD is perfect for those projects, says Craig Seeman of 3rd Planet Video in Brooklyn, New York. "I'll usually just export a still or client logo to use as a basic menu background," Seeman says. "The fact that Apple now uses a higher-quality encoder and now allows for two hours of video makes iDVD a great post-session tool when you don't need a full presentation DVD in DVD Studio Pro 2."

The other way Scallon sees iLife working its way into the pro space is where he says the really interesting action is: the event videography market. "Videographers, whether it's wedding or sports or other events, are really embracing the new iLife apps as a way of creating end-user content," he says. "If a wedding videographer wants to make DVDs available at a low cost, he doesn't have to go all the way into our professional apps to do it. We've streamlined the process and added things like automatic scene detection and chapter markers, and more and more people are doing entire projects in iLife."

Scallon admits that there's still a long way to go in terms of educating videographers and photographers about what they can accomplish with iLife, and points to the fact that most still outsource their DVD authoring as proof. He presented an iLife session at this year's Photo Marketing International trade show in Las Vegas, which draws both still photographers and videographers. "I showed them how to build projects in iMovie and iPhoto, and then how to output them to DVD with iDVD," he says. "A small percentage was thrilled. The rest were just dumbfounded, as if the possibility of doing all this had never occurred to them before."

iLife with the Lions
Other videographers have embraced iLife in a big way. Stinton—who also uses Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress DV, and Media 100 along with a handful of additional professional apps—is such a big proponent of iLife that you almost wonder if he's on the Apple payroll (he's not, he assures us). "We're a small studio, and we're always looking for a way to communicate better and cheaper, and iLife lets us do that," he says. "I mean, the applications really are endless."

And while some might argue that the effects and menu templates in iMovie and iDVD limit what a producer can accomplish, Stinton says that's missing the point, which should be the quality of the final product. "The engine in DVD Studio Pro is the same as the engine in iDVD, so there's no difference in the quality of the authoring, except that iDVD saves you about two hours," on simple projects, he says. "And iMovie compresses things very nicely; the engine in there is fine."

If you do want to focus on the templates, Stinton says the visual and text effects in iMovie let him create professional-quality projects in much less time. "For example, if you want to do a title crawl like the one at the beginning of Star Wars, you'll probably do it in Boris Graffiti," he says. "But you can do the same thing just as well, and a lot quicker, in iMovie."

Of course, iMovie doesn't offer the real-time power of a professional application, nor does it feature as many effects as Final Cut, but more doesn't always mean better. "We'll get presentations from potential freelance editors, and when they're done, we'll say ‘You used Final Cut Pro on this, right?' When they ask how we could tell, we say it's because they used every transition known to man," Stinton says. "Most of the time, all you really need, or want, are crossfades and dissolves, anyway."

Stinton's also found GarageBand to be a tremendous help when it comes to the audio side of his productions. A lot of the audio edits he's faced with are pretty basic, he says. "Sure, I could go into Pro Tools and do them, but that's like taking a Ferrari to go shopping," he says. Instead, he'll dump a track into GarageBand, make a quick edit, send it out to iTunes, and burn it to a CD. The same goes for creating basic music backgrounds, he says. "If you need a little ten-second music bed, you could spend 90 minutes looking around for the right one, or you can just go into GarageBand and make one."

And here's where the iPod comes in handy: When Stinton produced a recent music awards show, he needed to have all the music handy when the nominations and awards were announced. The solution? He put all the songs into iTunes and created playlists for each category. Then, he shipped the files out to an iPod for playback during the show. [See Sidebar, "iPod Nation."]

Similarly, producer Brent Altomare of Groovy Like a Movie, a production and post-production house in San Diego, uses iTunes to organize all the royalty-free music he uses, and when he finds the selection he wants, he rips it for import into Final Cut Pro. The company also shoots and edits video for the Jumbotron-style video board used during San Diego Sockers Major Indoor Soccer League games, and provides the music during games. "We have a laptop that has about 500 songs on it, along with sound effects, loaded into iTunes," he says. "We just have several playlists—‘general music,' ‘SFX,' ‘goal,' ‘dance music'—that we switch between depending on the situation. It's a very simple and flexible way to run the show."

A Day in iLife
Putting together corporate video for a forklift manufacturer might not be as glamorous as producing an awards show or arena sports event, but Scott Fritz, the multimedia producer for Crown Equipment in New Bremen, Ohio, has found iLife invaluable for creating video for something far more important. He uses it to produce DVDs to help his company's attorneys defend Crown in lawsuits brought by workers who claim they were injured as a result of equipment malfunctions.

The lawyers want to re-create the circumstances of the accident on video, to demonstrate that it was probably operator error, and not the equipment, that caused the injury, says Fritz, whose background is in television and video production. Fritz takes a DV camera and a G4 PowerBook to the scene, shoots footage, and then edits and outputs a DVD right there onsite using iMovie and iDVD. "I'm still amazed I can do all this with just a couple of tools," Fritz says, adding that using Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro are just too time-consuming to be useful in the field.

Fritz says that iLife is perfect for the kind of "quick and dirty" sales or training productions that are becoming so prevalent in the corporate environment. "These things have a limited shelf life and a limited audience, and what people need is a real ‘motion picture,' something that simply demonstrates a process or makes a visual point," he says. "There's sometimes no need for the higher production values that you need higher-end software for."

The primary edit bay in Fritz's department is a G4 running Avid Xpress DV and DVD Studio Pro 2, but he says that iMovie on a PowerBook or another Mac gives him a "great second-tier editing bay." Fritz does find some of iLife's limitations frustrating—you can't do multiple angles or languages in iDVD, and you can't do complicated effects easily in iMovie nor can you output to anything but DV. But even with those drawbacks, Fritz says that iLife beats out its PC counterparts at the same level. "Video is becoming more and more like word processing, in that everyone can do it on their own desktop," he says. "But the Windows apps are so difficult to get to work right, it's really a shame."

With the ubiquity of video, unfortunately comes a potential devaluing of the professional videographer's skills, Fritz says. Crown recently wanted a video tour of one of its facilities, and didn't want to spend much time or money on the project, and so handed a Sony TRV-900 camera to someone in the marketing department. "I sat her down in front of a Mac running iMovie, and she never even had to look at the manual," Fritz says. "But when they saw the final product, they realized the lighting was off, the sound wasn't great, and they spent a lot of time and energy re-doing things to get it right."

Ultimately, though, it showed Fritz's bosses how much craft and skill goes into producing even the simplest video project, he says. "It was like they realized, ‘All these people we're paying to do video really know what they're doing!'" While iLife empowers and enables people to create multimedia projects themselves, its still takes a pro to produce a professional-quality project, regardless of the tools used.

Back in the iLife
While you can't do with iLife what you can do with a suite of professional tools, more and more Mac-based studios are figuring out that there are plenty of projects that can be completed without going into FCP or DVD SP 2. The moral of the story? Just because you're using a so-called "consumer tool" doesn't mean you're dumbing down your project, or even selling client expectations short.

"Sometimes I hear editors say ‘When my clients come in, they want to see that I'm editing on an Avid,'" says Stinton, who moderates several forums for Creative Cow. "Well, I say ‘Get new clients.' It should be about the final product, not the tools you use to create it."

companies mentioned in this article
Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com/ilife
Avid Technology, Inc., www.avid.com
Media 100, Inc., www.media100.com

Apple's iApps have always been simple and powerful consumer tools, but iLife '04 raised the bar with features and functions that finally make it worth a look for digital studio pros. "We've heard people say that they couldn't have used iLife for professional work a year ago," says Apple's Greg Scallon. "But now they can." Here's what separates iLife '04 from its predecessors:

• iMovie 4—If you wanted to trim a clip in iMovie 3, you had to select it and then go into the clip view window. With timeline-based editing, Scallon says, "it's just flat-out easier and faster to get to your movies and edit them." The timeline also displays audio waveforms, making for more precise sound and video syncing than before.

• iDVD 4—The big story here is 20 new still and motion menu themes, all professional quality. In other words, they're classy enough that an event videographer or corporate video team would be hard pressed to come up with something better. Also new is a DVD Map window for a flowchart-like view of project assets and navigation.

• iPhoto 4—iPhoto has gotten faster and more powerful, now holding up to 25,000 photos. But the application's organizational tools have also gotten stronger. Andy Stinton's Event Studio uses iPhoto to keep track of all his firm's still photography and images, and Groovy Like a Movie's Brent Altamore says it's much easier to arrange images in iPhoto and then output them to Final Cut Pro than it is to arrange them in FCP itself.

• iTunes 4.2—Like iPhoto does for your still images, iTunes offers an intuitive, easy way to organize all your audio files. It can extract to MP3 and AIFF audio, or download protected AAC files from the iTunes music store. And unlike any of the other iApps, this one does Windows, too.

• GarageBand—Scallon says GarageBand takes the best of Apple's professional sound applications (Soundtrack and Logic) and puts them into a single tool. You can create tunes out of Apple-supplied loops, using a USB or MIDI keyboard, with a guitar or microphone, or using a combination of any or all of the above. It comes with software instruments and 1000 loops; the $99 JamPack add-on offers 2000 more loops, as well as classic guitar amplifier sounds and another 100 software instruments. Believe the hype: GarageBand is every bit as cool as Apple says it is.

When Apple announced better-than-expected earnings for the quarter ending March 27, it wasn't just because of its PC sales. In fact, Apple moved more iPods and iPod minis (807,000) than Mac desktops and laptops (749,000) during the company's fiscal second quarter. That might come a surprise to doubters who point to the iPod's price, which is higher than MP3 players with comparable capacity and features. I had my doubts, too, until I got my hands on a new iPod mini this spring. The 4GB mini sells for $249, and the standard-size iPods go all the way up to $500 for the 40GB model; surely the fact that the iPod had a cooler form factor than anything else on the market couldn't justify its high price tag?

Turns out that the iPod offers a lot more than style, though the lime green mini Apple sent me is eliciting plenty of wows from my friends and family. The mini's touch-sensitive click wheel makes it ridiculously simple to scroll through playlists or browse through the unit's entire contents by artist or song title, and it's small enough to fit easily in your pocket.

What I had underestimated was the iPod's sound. I've listened to plenty of MP3 players, most of which feature a frequency response and presence that's adequate at best. The iPod, though, sounds almost as good as my home stereo, even through the standard earbud headphones. There's plenty of bass, and enough volume that you really don't want or need to crank it all the way up for any extended period of time. With the optional $39 dock and a $3 RCA patch cord, it plugs right into that home stereo or a set of powered speakers, too. Only your pocketbook can tell you whether or not you want to spend that much money on an MP3 player, but if you do, you won't be disappointed.