Capturing the moment
Windows Movie Maker divides the editing process into three stages. Windows XP and Vista call these stages by different names, but the functions are the same. The first of these involves collecting your video, still image and audio assets together. Unless you plan on working with existing video files, you will need to transfer your clips from camcorder to hard disk.
If your camcorder uses DV or HDV tape, your PC requires a FireWire connection. This is pretty standard in most desktops and notebooks these days but if you don't have it built in you can pick up a PCI adapter for around Â£10, including a cable. Otherwise, all that's required is the cable, which should only set you back about Â£5. DV and HDV camcorders use a small four-pin FireWire plug, and desktops a larger six-pin one. So the most common video FireWire cables connect six-pin to four-pin. But notebooks generally have four-pin plugs like camcorders, so if you're a laptop user you will need a cable with one of these at both ends.
However, if you have an older analogue camcorder you will need an analogue video capture card from the likes of Pinnacle - and that will usually come with more powerful software than Windows Movie Maker. An alternative is to use a DV camcorder with the ability to take an analogue input and then output it via its FireWire port, which will then allow you to capture the footage as if it was stored as DV. However, not every model has this option so check the specifications carefully before trying it. The Windows XP edition of WMM can capture from VIVO graphics cards or webcams, too, but this capability has been removed from the Vista version.
Once you've hooked up your camcorder to your PC, turn it on, put it into VCR mode, and allow Windows to detect it and install the appropriate drivers. Next, choose â€˜Import from digital video camera' (in Vista) or â€˜Capture from video device' in XP. With DV sources, WMM can capture over FireWire to a variety of formats, but for best quality we'd recommend using the DV-AVI format (XP) or Audio Video Interleaved (Vista), as this preserves the native format your camcorder uses to record video to tape. You can either manually choose which bits of the tape to capture, or let WMM record the whole thing and separate it into clips automatically. If you've got plenty of disk space free, the latter is the easiest option - you can then go and make a sandwich while the video is transferred to your PC automatically. Note that HDV sources only offer one capture format option and you can only capture the entire tape.
If your camcorder is one of the recent models that records to DVD or hard disk, you will need to be running one of the top two editions of Windows Vista. The version of WMM included with Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate supports MPEG-2, so can import the MOD files created by JVC's Everio camcorders, but the version in Windows XP can't. Also, note that HDV is only supported by these Vista versions of WMM. None of them can import the VOB files created by DVD camcorders, however, so these will need to be converted to MPG files using DVD ripping software.
Once the footage is captured, it will be stored as one big file. Right click on the icon and select â€˜Create clips'. This will automatically divide your big file into separate virtual clips represented by separate icons, but the original file remains untouched. However, this isn't infallible so you will have to manually cut up your clips, which brings us to the next part of the process.