Please note that I'm an amateur video editor -- I don't work in the film/tv/online-content industries -- so this guide does not pretend to offer professional editing advice. It gives a basic overview of some of the issues an amateur or semi-pro would find useful to consider when trying to choose a video editor.
The focus is on "free" video editors, with a bias for the Windows platform (as that's what I'm using). ETA: sholio has added a useful review of iMovie here.
Learning to edit
This may seem obvious, but learning to edit video is harder than you think. Even in the Idiot-Proof editing suites, the controls tend not to be intuitive at first, a lot of stuff works backwards to what you think it will, and the official manuals tend to suck. In other words, video editing is not a hobby you can pick up over a weekend; it's going to take some time to make anything that looks good.
To give you an idea, it took me about a month, if memory serves, to really get anywhere with MovieMaker, starting with absolutely no knowledge at all. MovieMaker is designed to be easy -- and I can say it absolutely is, now that I'm familiar with Sony Vegas Pro. It took about 6 months of pretty steady effort to really get the hang of the basic functions of editing on the pro version of Sony Vegas (which is considered one of the easier editors to learn). I'm only just now getting really good at it, nearly 3 years later. In hindsight, I should have used the non-Pro version as a stepping stone, and then upgraded.
It may well take a shorter time for you, but if you have a deadline, you need to seriously over-estimate how long the editing stage will take, especially if you have limited editing experience.
Technical stuff you need to know
If you are making a vid for a particular audience, there are technical specs you need to know before you choose an editor. I really can't stress this enough. Choosing an editor with your tech requirements in mind will save you a lot of heartache at the project's end. I once had to re-edit an entire video because I didn't know enough about this, and couldn't render the film I'd made.
First, and most importantly, you want a non-linear editor (NLE). Don't go for anything that's not -- they are horrible to edit on. A non-linear editor allows you to place your video clips anywhere on the timeline and they stick there. A linear editor requires you to place clips in sequence, one after the other, and they will shuffle forward if you remove a clip, rather than sticking to their place. Ugh.
Second, if you are editing for a specific purpose, you need to know what kind of input and output you need -- eg. the format your camera uses, the format you want to export your video in, the frame rate needed, and so on. If you're just making vids for fun, this is less important, but if you want to submit your vid anywhere other than internet services like YouTube or Vimeo, you really do need to know this. Some editors don't support common formats when you import from video cameras; some don't export in certain formats. So if there's a format you absolutely must import, or render your final movie in, make sure the editor you pick can do so... or that you know of a stable work-around. For instance, if your editor can render lossless avi files, you could then convert them into the format you need another way and still get a good result in most cases.
How To guides
YouTube has a lot of awesome How To guides. I tend to use them a lot to figure out how to do things. I strongly recommend you look at a few for the video editor(s) you are thinking of using. See what the interface looks like, and how it all works.
For more technical information on making a vid, there's a fabulous guide (focused on AMV makers, but useful for anyone getting started in video editing): A&E's Technical Guides to All Things Audio and Video (v3).
Don't try to read it from start to finish -- dip into it as you get to each stage of making a vid. I use this for every vid I make, as there are different technical challenges each time.
The Video Editors
I actually use a combination of a pro NLE editing suite (Sony Vegas), and about a dozen freeware applications which help prep and convert media files. The freeware actually does some of these jobs way way better than Sony Vegas -- in fact you can't do some of these jobs in Vegas. Below, I'm just focusing on the actual video editors. Links and guides to using the freeware are in A&E's Technical Guides to All Things Audio and Video (v3).
Free editors for rank beginners
Windows MovieMaker. Free, single-track NLE.
You've probably heard about this editor -- heard people cursing it, that is. Everything that you've heard is true, but I'm still recommending this as a starting point if you've never made a vid before. It's very easy to learn how to use, is the thing. So if you're an absolute n00b to the world of video editing, this will help you get familiar with the basic ideas of clipping, placing on the timeline, adding effects, and so on, without a lot of confusing extra options. It's also well documented and there are a lot of help forums.
WMM comes bundled with Windows, but can also be downloaded from Microsoft. It started out as a very poor linear editor, but is now NLE, which means it actually works pretty well as training wheels. It's still single track, however, which is a deal-breaker for most editing jobs, as it seriously limits the effects you can create. It's quite simplistic, but will do an okay job on short films.
I wouldn't use it for anything more than 5 mins in length, because the old version I started out vidding on had trouble rendering big files, and as far as I know that's still true. It only renders in a couple of formats -- as Windows Media files natively, and I think you can add other codecs for one or two of the other common formats.
I would also only recommend you use this for your first 3 vids, just enough to get familiar with the basics of editing, and then move on to something better.
Ulead Studios. Free, single-track NLE.
I've never used this, but I've heard it's on-par with WMM in terms of ease-of-use, while offering slightly more functionality. Like WMM, it would probably work well as a training-wheels type editor, so you can get familiar with the basics before moving on to a better editor.
"Free" pro editors
Lightworks. Public beta, multi-track NLE.
Lightworks is currently available in a public beta version. I haven't used this, but I believe it's harder to learn than Sony Vegas Pro or Premier Pro, just from what I've read on forums. It's rapidly becoming an industry standard, and buzz about it is mostly positive. There's lots of official support and tutorials for Lightworks because of it's public beta status, and also lots of documentation on Wikipedia and so forth.
This could be a really good choice, depending on your needs. You'd need to do a comparison of features with other editors to figure out if it would work for you. However, public beta does imply that at some point this will come out of beta, and when it does it may no longer be "public", so you could end up having to pay for it.
Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0. Open to download, multi-track NLE.
I haven't used Premier, but it's rapidly becoming one of the industry standards, and generally considered very good. It probably takes the same kind of time to learn as Sony Vegas Pro, so be prepared to spend some time on it.
Be warned: Version 2.0 is only available "free" because Adobe recently posted public keys to the software they are no longer maintaining, so that old clients could still access it. The site warns that only legitimate customers should download and use it.
Version 2.0 is old, obsolete really, but still should be perfectly serviceable for basic pro editing. Because it is so old, it may not work on your current system, and there will be little documentation and less support.
All that said, if you are considering buying the Adobe creative suite (Premier, After Effects, Photoshop, etc), this could be a good way to have a play with the editor first.
Other free video editors
There are some other freeware options, but they are an order of magnitude harder to learn as they don't have spiffy user interfaces. Some, like VirtualDub, are worth using in a limited way for their Avisynth editing capacity (as outlined in the AMV Guide I've linked to above). Most of them would be very, very hard to edit a whole vid on.
You can find a list of free editors on Wikipedia, here.
Buying an NLE
If you are interested in buying a multi-track editor for Windows, here are the main options, in alphabetical order.
Adobe Premier Pro and Elements. Around AU$1,300 and AU$130 respectively
Elements is the cut-down version of Premier Pro. It seems reasonably priced, and from all accounts it does a good job of basic editing, and has some neat stuff bundled in. Premier Pro is rapidly becoming an industry standard, and integrates well with the other Adobe creative products.
Avid Media Composer. Around US$2,500
I don't know much about this, but it's considered an industry standard, and is used a lot in workplaces where there's a need to share files.
Sony Vegas Pro and Movie Studio. Around US$600 and US$50 respectively.
Available as both Pro and cut-down versions, much like Premier. Vegas Pro is the editor I chose, because it was the cheapest reputable full-suite editor around when I was looking to buy. I'd now probably try Lightworks first, but I'm happy with Sony Vegas and plan to continue to use it.
There are some applications you'll hear a lot about when poking around at NLEs. These are not generally used as video editors (although can be), but to do specialised work, usually special effects. The two mains ones are:
Adobe After Effects. Around AU$1,600
Commonly used by vidders to add special effects to videos, and also now fairly widely used professionally. Can be used in conjuction with video editors other than Adobe Premier. There's lots of how-to guides about, but it looks pretty difficult to learn.
Blender. Free, 3D graphics modelling software.
Used primarily for special effects. I'm seeing this crop up a lot now in ads and show reels on YouTube. There's a fair amount of industry buzz about it, and it's starting to get used more widely as a pro tool. The user interface looks pretty unintuitive, and the people who talk about it mostly use dense jargon, so my impression is it's still very much for hard-core tech geeks.
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