10 tips for getting started with iMovie for iOS

Splice together your iPhone & iPad videos with slick-looking transitions, add titles, lay down custom soundtracks, and more.

10 tips for getting started with iMovie for iOS
Ben Patterson

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Your iPhone videos don’t have to be boring just because you shot them with iOS. With a little help from Apple’s iMovie, you can add quite a bit of polish to your clips, spiffing them up with titles, transitions, slow and fast motion, and even background music. (Note: iMovie is available as a free download for all iOS devices purchased since September 2013; for everyone else, it's a $5 download.)

We’ve collected a few pointers that’ll help you make sense of iMovie’s overall workflow. We’ll also decipher the app’s simple (if occasionally head-scratching) interface as well as try out some basic editing tools. With a little practice, you’ll be splicing together video like a pro in no time.

Getting started

The first step to making a movie in iMovie is getting a hang of the overall process—and for that, it’s best to understand the three main tabs of the iMovie app: Video, Projects, and Theater

Getting started Ben Patterson

The Projects tab in iMovie is where you’ll do most of your editing; the Video tab is where you’ll find videos to edit, while Theater is where you’ll export your finished movies.

The first tab, Video, displays all the video clips stored on your iOS device or in iCloud. Think of the Video tab as your warehouse of raw video clips.

The next tab, Projects, is where you’ll be doing all the work. To make a movie, you’ll need to create a project, stir in some clips from the Video tab, and then start editing.

The last tab, Theater, is where your projects will go once they’re fully baked. Once you’ve “exported” a project to the Theater tab (a.k.a., “iMovie Theater”), you’ll be able to play your new movie on all your iCloud-connected devices, stream it to an Apple TV, or even upload it to YouTube.

Create a new project & pick a theme

Now that you have a general idea of how to make a movie in iMovie, go to the Projects tab and tap the big “+” button to create a new project.

Create a new project & pick a theme Ben Patterson

Pick a theme for your movie, anything from Modern to CNN iReport—and yes, you can always change the theme later.

You’ll be presented with two choices: make a movie, or create a trailer. Let’s stick with the “Movie” option for now. (Making a trailer involves collecting just right sequence of action shots, profiles, landscapes, two-shots, and more, so it’s more complicated than it may seem.)

Next, you’ll be asked to pick a theme, anything from “Modern” and “Bright” to “News” and even “CNN iReport.” Each theme comes with its own title design, transitions, and (optional) background music. For this example, I selected the “Simple” theme, but it can easily be changed later. Once a theme is selected, tap Create. 

Add some video clips

Once you’ve created a project, you’ll jump right into the My Movie interface. Tap the Media button (the one that looks like a film strip) and tap the Video tab. (If you’re using iMovie on your iPad, the Media window will already be sitting in the top corner of the My Movie screen.)

Add some video clips Ben Patterson

Just tap the curved arrow to add a video to your iMovie project.

Next, tap a clip, then tap the curved arrow—when you do, the clip will fly into the My Movie interface. Go ahead and tap the Media button again, then add one more clip to the mix.

Back on the My Movie screen, tap the Play button to watch your two video clips cut together, complete with a “dissolve” transition between them. In the bottom half of the screen, try dragging your new movie back and forth with your fingertip; the vertical line in the middle of the display shows the exact point in the clip that’s being displayed in the preview area above.

Bonus tip: You can add still photos to your video, too—just pick them from the Media tab. You’ll be able to trim your still just as you would a video clip.

Trim your clips and change the transition

Now, let’s do a little snipping. Tap the first clip in the lower editing section; when you do, it’ll be outlined in yellow. Go to the beginning or the end of the clip, tap and hold the thick yellow side, then drag to snip out a portion of the clip. (Don’t worry, you’re not trimming the original video.) If you want to trim the second clip in your project, go ahead and repeat the process.

Trim your clips and change the transition Ben Patterson

Among the transitions from which you can choose: Dissolve, Slide, Wipe, and Fade.

Now, see the little square with the bow tie between your two clips? That’s your transition. Tap it, and you’ll see a series of transition styles at the bottom of the screen, including Dissolve, Slide, Wipe, and Fade. Tap one and press Play to see how each transition looks; you can also pick the None option for a “hard” cut. 

What’s the Theme transition, you ask? It’s a transition that’s styled after the theme you picked when you first started your project; for example, Modern will give you a smooth, “swoosh”-type theme, while the News transition features a digital globe that flies up the screen, not unlike something you’d see on “World News Tonight.”

And by the way: To change your theme, tap the Settings button (the one that looks like a gear), then pick a new theme from the list.

Bonus tip: To add fade-in/out effects to the beginning and end of your iMovie, tap Settings, then flip the switches next to “Fade in from black” and “Fade out from black.”

Add some titles

What would a movie be without opening titles? Tap the first clip in your project to select it, then tap the Titles button (“T”) at the bottom of the screen.

Add some titles Ben Patterson

Just tap a field and start typing to customize your titles. 

Next, pick a style from the choices at the bottom of the screen—anything from Standard to Pop-Up. You can also pick a style based on one of the movie themes we mentioned earlier; to do so, just tap the button next to the None button. 

Once you’ve settled on a style, tap a title in the preview window, then type in whatever title you like—such as “Claire’s 4th birthday party,” for example. Depending on the style you picked, there may be multiple titles to fill in.

Split your video clips

You may have noticed that the titles you just added to your video clip are staying on the screen for the entire length of the clip you selected. That’s not exactly desirable if, say, the selected clip is five minutes long.

Split your video clips Ben Patterson

Just select a video clip and tap Split to divide one of your clips in two.  

Here’s how to fix it—and indeed, this is a trick you’ll be using for many different iMovie effects.

Move the clip with your fingertip until about four or five seconds have elapsed in the preview window, then tap the clip to select it. Next, tap the Edit button (the one that looks like a pair of scissors) at the bottom of the screen, then tap Split.

Now, play back the entire clip, and the titles will disappear at the precise moment where you split the clip.

Tinker with the soundtrack

There’s nothing that sets the mood like some music. iMovie allows you to add in background tunes, sound effects, and even a little color commentary to your movie.

Tinker with the soundtrack Ben Patterson

Just grab one of the yellow arrows and drag to make the audio track fade in or out.

To do so, move your first video clip to the very beginning, tap the Media button, tap the Audio tab, then select Theme Music. Choose a track—like Bright, for instance—then tap the curved arrow to add it to the editing bay.

Go ahead and tap Play, and you’ll hear a peppy music track to go along with your video.

Naturally, you can edit the audio track just as you can your video clips. Tap the green music track to select it, tap the Edit button, then tap Split. Tap the newly created second segment of the track, then tap Edit > Delete. Now tap the remaining audio track, tap the Volume button at the bottom of the screen, then adjust the slider to change the track’s volume. Or, try this: tap Volume > Fade, then tap and drag one of the yellow triangles to make the track’s volume fade in or out.

You can also add your own commentary to the video by tapping the microphone button. Tap Record, start chattering, and tap Accept when you’re happy with the recording. You can then tap the new recording track to edit it, just like you did with the green music track.

Also on deck in the Media screen: sound effects (tap the Media button, then Audio > Sound Effects), as well as any songs sitting on your iPhone or iPad.

Last but not least, you can tweak the audio track of one of the video clips in your project. Tap the clip to select it, tap the Edit button at the bottom of the screen (if it isn’t already selected), then tap Detach. When you do, the sound for the clip will jump into its own audio track, which you can edit, trim, fade, or adjust its volume.

Add a video filter

If you want your video—either the whole thing, or just a portion—to look like a vintage movie, complete with film scratches and other nifty effects, just add the correct video filter.

Add a video filter Ben Patterson

Want your video to look like a silent movie? Just pick the “Silent Era” video filter.

Tap a clip to select it, tap the Filter button (the one that looks like three shaded circles), then pick a filter—anything from Blast and Blockbuster to Silent Era or Vintage.

If you only want a portion of a clip to have a color filter, just split the clip and add the filter to the segment you want.

Speed up (or slow down) your video

You can add fast- or slow-motion effects to your movies in just a few taps. Say, for example, you want to speed up a sluggish scene. Just create a segment of a clip with the Edit tool, tap the segment to select it, tap the Speed button (the one that looks like a speed gauge), the drag the slider right to speed up the clip, or left to slow it down.

Speed up (or slow down) your video Ben Patterson

To speed up or slow down a video clip in your project, select it and tap the Speed button.

Bonus tip: To make the sped-up (or slowed-down) segment more dramatic, grab a “whoosh”-like sound effect from the Media window (“Jet Fly By” works quite nicely), drag it beneath the segment, then edit it down to fit.

Export and share your new movie

There are still plenty of handy iMovie tricks for you to discover; for starters, we haven’t covered how to create a split-screen scene, how to zoom a video, or how to splice in a freeze-frame. By now, though, you know enough to make a reasonably slick-looking iMovie, and it’s time to show it off.

The first step is to export your video to iMovie Theater, a repository for all your completed iMovie projects. When you’re ready to export your movie, just tap Done from the My Movie editing screen. Next, tap the Action button (the square one with the arrow), then tap iMovie Theater.

The iMovie app will then begin exporting your video, a process that’ll take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, depending on the length of your movie and the age of your iOS device. (Older iPhones and iPads will take longer to process video files.)

Once that’s done, your movie will appear under the Theater tab, and it’ll automatically syncwith your other iCloud-connected devices. Tap on a movie and tap the Action button to send the movie via Mail or Messages, post it to Facebook or Twitter, upload it to YouTube, and more.

Still want to edit the movie? If so, you’ll have to go back to the Projects tab, open the project you want to edit, and then re-export it to the Theater tab once you’re finished.

Have any other tips and tricks for iMovie? Share them with us (and your fellow video editors) in the comments below.

Correction: In the original version of this article, iMovie was shown to cost $5. In fact, iMovie is available as a free download for all iOS devices purchased since September 2013; for everyone else, it's a $5 download.  

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