What do you do with video clips?

A sequence of anxious emails from my daughter following her discovery that many video clips appeared to be missing following a migration from a PC to a Mac platform caused me to investigate what had gone wrong, and whether there really was a problem … or not? This is what appears to have happened.

All the video clips HAD been copied over, but only the ones whose format was acceptable to iPhoto were viewable in that library. This only came to light when she noticed they were missing from Lightroom after an import from iPhoto – a process described here. Of course iMovie can only read MPEG-4 (MOV) files so they didn’t appear there either!

This raised the issue in my mind of what should you do with video clips to preserve them. An easy solution would be to post them all to YouTube or Vimeo, I suppose – but that seems to be a bit OTT for a clip 15secs, or so, long, and yet that 15secs might represent a really valuable memory that you wouldn’t want to lose. So … what workflow should you adopt for video clips? What practices should you adopt to ensure your snatched clips are retained for posterity?

The first thing that occurred to me, was that it’s very important to distinguish between cataloguing and editing your video clips. Yes … I know that’s obvious but it needs to be re-stated as the workflow that you adopt depends upon the decisions you make on storage and cataloguing. I love Lightroom because (like Picasa) it catalogues your media wherever it’s located in your file system. It doesn’t need to bring all the media together into a single place as iPhoto, Photoshop and others do, and which then lose the individual files inside a catalogue (or database). This approach enables you in Lightroom to have different catalogues looking at different slices of your media collection without creating copies (and taking up disk space). However, if you don’t use Lightroom … I would recommend following the following three golden rules:

1) Keep your video clips in a different folder on your hard disk from your photographs, or images;
2) Convert the clips to MPEG-4 as soon as you’ve imported them, if they aren’t already in that format;
3) After editing (in Movie Maker, or iMovie) always ensure you save, or export the finished movie as MPEG-4.

These three simple rules should ensure that you won’t be left with clips that you can’t read, view or edit as technology moves on.

So if you’re a Lightroom user the import into the Lightroom catalogue is a good decision, especially since it supports a wide range of video formats. [NB It doesn’t support WMV files however, so you’ll need to do a conversion of files if you’re moving from Windows to Mac and want to import files from that format, and its worthwhile doing the conversion for all other formats at the same time into MPEG-4. For this, I recommend Handbrake – but more about that later.]

However, you what you can edit in Lightroom is limited, therefore you need some way of accessing these clips so that you can edit them in, for instance, iMovie, or Windows Movie Maker. I would suggest that means you need a well-organised file-store and also a way of clearly identifying video clips inside your Lightroom catalogue. Luckily, you can do this very easily by creating a Smart Collection in Lightroom which identifies files with given suffixes. You should then export these to a temporary folder to allow format conversion (eg AVI to MPEG-4), and then import into an editing programme. [NB You can only rely on iMovie supporting Apple’s flavour of the MOV format, eg from the iPhone/iPad, so conversion of anything else to MPEG-4 first is a sensible precursor to the import.]

So how do you do a conversion to MPEG-4 or MP4? I use, and recommend using Handbrake – as mentioned above. Although the dashboard you’re presented with looks a bit daunting, the defaults are designed to produced high-quality MP4 formatted files. It appears at first that you can only select one file at a time to convert, but that is not the case since if you navigate using the Source button to the folder where your video clips are (that’s why I mentioned exporting the files to a temporary folder above if the files werre already in Lightroom), you can then select “Add All Titles to to Queue …” from the File tab. The re-formatted files can then be imported back into Lightroom and the originals deleted – again using Smart Collections.

This post has focussed on the Mac and using iMovie, but if you’re a PC user I would recommend using Windows Movie Maker which is a very effective and easy to learn package and which you can use alongside Lightroom as I’ve described above. If you aren’t a Lightroom user then follow the golden rules above. Above all … don’t leave any video clips in any format other than MPEG-4 if you want to be sure of retaining compatibility for the future.

4 Replies to “What do you do with video clips?”

  1. Important problem to address!

    My instincts would diverge a little bit from yours on a couple of things. Firstly: I’d definitely archive the original format. Encoding to MPEG-4 (and I assume you specifically mean .h264?) is good advice for getting useable and widely supported clips to play with now but it’s still a lossy format – so unless you’re simply repackaging something that’s already in a codec that’s part of MPEG-4 into an mp4 container, that’s one step away from the original quality. In a couple of years, when WebM/VP8 rules the roost, you’ll have to re-encode. If you’ve only got that converted .h264 file, you’re taking an additional step away from the original version – the equivalent of a second generation copy, for those of us who remember the days of analogue tapes… If you absolutely must chuck your originals in favour of the .h264 version, I’d suggest using the original resolution of the clip, and the highest quality settings (in Handbrake, that’s a topic in its own right…) Also, I think the latest iMovie is capable of supporting a wider range of format that you give it credit for – I’ve never had trouble bringing AVCHD files from a range of cameras into it directly.

    Secondly, while I agree the distinction between editing and cataloguing is an important one to make, that doesn’t mean you can’t find an app that’s best in class at both. I don’t rate photo organisers for managing video clips – at least, not iPhoto – I got my fingers burnt badly on that one. I haven’t tried Lightroom but I’d much prefer to use iMovie than iPhoto for cataloguing, especially since iMovie 7 when the cataloguing feature was beefed up and separated out from the editing. The thing that’s missing in iMovie is tagging – but if that’s important even for your video clips, FCPX has absolutely superb tagging features; that’d be my cataloguer of choice.

    1. Thanks Simon, I, of course, would not disagree with anything you say – particularly the lossy nature of MPEG-4, so the caveat/suggestion of doing the conversion at the lowest level of compression is a good one, but … the post was aimed mainly at achieving simplicity in workflow for non-geeks who just want to get on with life, take a few photos and videos on the same camera and then upload them to their Mac/PC.

      You’re right about AVCHD and iMovie – that format can also be imported into Lightroom, but the problem I was specifically addressing was old AVI, 3GP and WMA files which are not “standard” and which should be converted to an H-264 format (MPEG-4) and the originals consigned to the dustbin – as should my 35mm slides, my photo negatives, my cassettes and my VHS tapes as soon as I’ve transcoded them – well maybe not the latter two, they should just be chucked!

      What I really do take from your comment is the importance of specifically using a “pure MPEG-4” format and the best quality H-264 coding. Thanks.

      Finally, I did advocate using a different application for editing iMovie or Windows Movie Maker, it’s just useful to have a single catalogue for movies and photos when you import. Lightroom does that well as did Adobe Elements – unfortunately however it grunged everything together into a single database and of course does not easily support non-destructive editing – both huge strengths of Lightroom which of course does have superb tagging functionality as well as some video-editing capability.

      1. the originals consigned to the dustbin

        That’s where you’re much bolder than me! I take the view if Handbrake or FFMPEG or any other open equivalent can convert these now, it’ll be able to convert them in the future, when I want a first generation WebM copy. These clips tend to be older, poorer quality anyway, so I’m loathe to loose any further data by putting them through two lossy conversions. But then I won’t throw away slides or negatives for a very similar reason: I don’t know for sure that I won’t be able to make better digital transfers at some point in the future. Hence some rather crowded cupboards!

        Adobe Elements – unfortunately however it grunged everything together into a single database

        Grunging is a good word for what iPhoto did to me! I lost some data this way, and won’t attempt a combined catalogue again. Although good views for browsing photos don’t suit video well, and visa versa, I can see the benefit of being able to quickly dump everything in one place whenever you do a camera import – for those of us whose stills kit is also our video camera! All the same, it’s not something I’ll be risking…

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