Once upon a time, the only way to master the fine art of video editing was to pack your things and move to Hollywood. And then computer software such as Final Cut Pro opened the door for young filmmakers to craft their masterpieces on a desktop.

Today, you don't have to confine yourself to a desk. You can shoot and craft a mini-documentary within minutes from almost anywhere in the world using a video-editing app on your smartphone.

There are many free options at your disposal, including some that do most of the handiwork for you. You simply choose the clips, photos, and soundtrack from your phone's archives and let them go to work.

Others let you make the sort of hands-on creative decisions once reserved for Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and other film legends.

Here's what I learned when I recently tried four free video-editing apps.

Magisto (iOS and Android)

This app is among the easiest to use (even though the interface is a tad cluttered), and it generates videos that are fun to watch. You won’t be able to do many manual edits, though, unless you spring for the $10-per-month Magisto for Business.

To create a video with the free version, you follow this six-step process:

  1. Press the “Make a Video” button.
  2. Choose the clips and photos you want to include from the library on your phone.
  3. Choose one of the 25 editing styles.
  4. Select a song to serve as the soundtrack.
  5. Add a title.
  6. Click the “Make My Movie!” button.

Just like that, you have a video you can upload to your favorite social media site.  

Adobe Premiere Clip (iOS and Android)

The Adobe Premiere Clip app grants you more manual control than Magisto.

Once you open a project, you click on a plus icon and choose the clips, photos, and music you want to use. After that, you’re given two options: Automatic or Freeform. As the name implies, the first setting generates the video for you, syncing the pace of the footage to the beat of your soundtrack. If you'd like, you can then change the pacing, the soundtrack, or the order of the clips.

The Freeform setting allows you to trim the clips, add titles, apply filters, and adjust the volume. You can even slow the speed of individual video clips and edit them using slider controls marked Exposure, Highlights, and Shadows.

You can't, however, speed up the clips. And you get only one way to transition from scene to scene: the Crossfade.

There is one nice extra, though. The app integrates well with Adobe's feature-laden Premiere Pro CC computer software. That means you can transfer the file you edited with Premiere Clip to a laptop and import it into Premiere Pro for more detailed edits.


Apple iMovie (iOS)

iMovie lets you do even more granular edits. After placing your video, photos, and music clips onto a virtual timeline, you can easily expand or trim the length of each scene to achieve the effect you want. A wide selection of soundtracks and transition tools help you stitch things together. And the app offers cool Ken Burns-like animation effects to bring your photos and text to life.

Want to slowly zoom in on a telling detail in an old picture? No problem. Swiftly zoom out? You can do that, too.

In the iMovie's Projects section, you can create a Hollywood-like trailer using one of 14 templates based on themes such as "Scary" and "Romance."

And if you need help mastering the app's tools, you simply click on the question mark at the top of almost every screen and it lights up with text explaining important features and settings.

When you're finished with the edits, you store your project in the app's Theater section. If you have an iCloud account, you can also stow it there for viewing on an Apple laptop or tablet.


GoPro Splice (iOS)

GoPro has two video-editing apps. Splice lets you do more manual editing. In fact, it offers many of the same video, photo, text, and filter tools that come with iMovie.

But it also has a few cool extras worth noting, including the ability to adjust the duration of those photo animations and the ability to choose different colors for the video's background. You can also use default settings to shorten or lengthen clips, change transitions, and tweak the animation effects.

I especially liked the broad variety of soundtracks. The app even lets you add a second track to your project, which comes in handy if you want to introduce narration.

You can use multiple audio tracks on iMovie as well, but GoPro makes it easier to do on Splice. That said, I did have one small hiccup with the app. The video link it emailed me didn't work on my Google Chrome browser. I had to play the clip on Safari instead. 

Bottom Line

One of the nice things about using an app like these on your phone is that you don’t have to worry about transferring video clips from a camera to a computer and then remembering where you stored them. Everything you need is right there on the device.

In fact, while I appreciate the full scope of editing options available on computer software, I was impressed by how quick and easy it was to create and post a movie with these apps.

Better yet, all offered simple ways to share the finished masterpiece with friends, either via websites such as Facebook and YouTube or a URL that can be distributed by email.

Just keep in mind that all apps collect data on users, which can be used for marketing and shared with third parties. To protect your privacy, you might want to go to the settings menu on your phone and limit the data each app can access. Be sure to delete any apps you no longer use, too.