Well, I definitely think that the Macintosh operating system (Mac OS) is the right platform for "special effects and stuff like that." People are pretty divided and emotional about Macintoshes (Macs) and Windows, but I have intellectual motives for being a Macintosh advocate. Some are esoteric - and have to do with how I think and work with software tools, and how Apple Computer (who makes Macintoshes and the Mac OS) has always approached software and hardware design and implementation a bit differently. I'm not just a "Mac guy" because I want to be part of that cult - it just makes sense to me.
It's an important factor for you, being interested in media production, that the Mac OS is firmly established in the media community as the platform of choice. Though Macintoshes are a small minority of all the computers sold (around 7 per cent now), they represent the majority of people who manipulate still images, moving images and sound for a living. There is Windows software, and more of it, for doing pretty much anything you can do on a Mac. But if I have the choice, I'll still do all my production on a Mac. Part of the reason is kind of deep down in the Mac OS - a really slick kind of integration of a lot of things that mean, for instance, that you can just expect to be able to drag a video file on your Mac's "desktop" into an open window of a program you've never used, and expect that program to try to do the most logical thing with that piece of video. This isn't just the program, or just the Mac OS, but decades of a way of thinking, and people who program for Macs tend to consistently subscribe to these ideas. The Windows landscape is a bit more chaotic - no two programs behave, look, work, or "feel" the same, and you have no expectations about how you might accomplish a task.
OK - I didn't really need to *sell* you on Macs - you already said you wanted one - I was just telling you why I think it's a good choice.
I'm not the kind of guy who can usually tell you "you need to buy this," or "this is the best thing you can be doing." I can't make those kind of clear choices for myself - I'm just too aware of all the variables, and every thing is kind of a compromise. I also can't in good conscience tell someone to spend a lot of money - I'm very careful about that myself - so I'm always mindful when advising about purchases to keep things as economically sensible as I can. I tell you all this because I know that I'm going to end up telling you too much information, and probably won't have clear choices - especially since we haven't talked about this yet (except for your one email paragraph). I want your purchase to suit you, and to complicate matters, you don't yet know what you want.
So what follows won't yet be a guide to buying. For now, I'll just throw a bunch of thoughts at you about this. We need to establish some direction in which you want to proceed, and how fast you want to get there (which includes how much you can spend, or get for free from somewhere else). So here goes some first thoughts. Ask questions, and we'll keep going. We can talk on the phone, or even over the Internet (depending on what kinds of computers, etc. you have at home). Eventually, after you get a Mac, we can easily talk and even video chat.
Assuming you're wanting to spend as little as possible, and assuming you want to buy a new computer (although you could buy a used one), there are a few obvious choices:
(This info about Mac models is obviously out of date now, but I'll leave it historically intact. This is a moving target anyway, and not the point of the article. -Ed)
Apple iMac G5 - http://www.apple.com/imac/ - This is the most powerful of these three choices, and the most expensive. It is the only one of the three to use the current state-of-the-art G5 processor, so it's faster, and a bit more "future-proof" (meaning that it will work with software not yet released). These start at $1300, but are a complete computer with software with which you can do a lot of cool stuff. They're ready for video editing (all you need is a digital video camera, which your family might already have), and for making your own video DVDs. Apple's iLife '05 (http://www.apple.com/ilife/) software suite is included, and lets you edit video, manage digital still pictures, make and record music, and create DVDs.
Apple Mac mini - http://www.apple.com/macmini/ - This is a tiny Macintosh computer based on the older G4 processor. It's still plenty fast enough for video editing and other media tasks (recording sounds, special effects, etc.). It starts at $500, but only the $700 model has the DVD-burning SuperDrive - which you definitely want. This doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, or monitor (they figured people buying them would already have these parts around from old Macs), but you could use it with a monitor you already have, so you might only need a USB keyboard and USB mouse. It's possible (with maybe $60 more) to connect a KVM switch (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) so that one monitor, one USB keyboard and one USB mouse share a Windows PC you already have and the Mac mini (or any Mac). The mini also comes with Apple's iLife '05 software suite.
Apple iBook - http://www.apple.com/ibook/ - These laptop computers are $1,000 and $1,300, but only the higher-priced model comes with the DVD-burning SuperDrive (it also has a bigger display, and is bigger overall). They also use the older G4 processor, but are similar in performance to the Mac mini. The difference, of course, is that they are laptops. So you could actually be editing video in the car going down the road (actually, you could do this with the other Macs, too, with a power inverted plugged into the car's cigarette lighter, but you can't put a big monitor and keyboard on your lap). You could take it to school with you - lots of cool stuff. Of course, it can get dropped or stolen, so that's a big trade-off for portability. Laptops used to be a lot more expensive than desktops. Apple's higher end PowerBooks _are_ expensive, and more powerful than iBooks. But iBooks are pretty good values, and don't necessarily lose a lot to "desktop" computers. One significant drawback (for me, at least) - iBooks only display 1024 x 768 maximum display resolution - that's how many dots make up the screen's picture. Even when you connect them to an external monitor (with an optional $30 adapter), they still only do 1024 x 768. In contrast, the 17" iMac G5 does 1440 x 900, and the 20" iMac G5 is 1680 x 1050. What this means is that when you are working in programs that have a lot of little windows for tools (called "palettes"), you can see them all at once instead of having to layer them all on top of each other. When you're working with more than one program at once (I'm actually running 8 right now), it means you can have their windows side-by-side, to allow for viewing both without switching back and forth, and "dragging" elements between the programs' windows. Despite this display limitation, many people are willing to compromise with a modest screen resolution to have a completely portable computer.
NOTE: You should know that Apple will be changing a very big thing starting at the end of 2006 - they will begin using processors made by Intel instead of the IBM "PowerPC" processors which they currently use in all Macs. At that point, the Mac OS and all major software will have to change dramatically, and some of your old software may not work, or won't work very well. They probably won't sell an Intel-powered Mac that you would be likely to *buy* until some time in 2007 - I think the first models will be very high-end expensive ones. So that's probably so far off it won't really matter - but I though you should know.Apple's other computers are much more expensive, and some are much more powerful. But I don't think that will matter to you at this point.
Since we haven't really established what you want to do yet, this is a little vague. As I mentioned, all new Macintoshes come with Apple's "iLife" software suite (http://www.apple.com/ilife/):
iMovie HD - Capture video from your digital video camera (or even footage from TV, or home videos your family already has), edit it, add titles and some (simple) effects and transitions, and output high-quality video back onto digital tape (or DVD, see "iDVD" below).
iDVD - Turn content captured by a digital camcorder (including video from other sources, like VHS or Hi8 tape, or live television) into DVDs you can play in (most of) your family's and friends' DVD players. You can make title menus with custom graphics and captions while "authoring" your DVDs.
iPhoto - Collect and organize photos taken on your digital camera (or collected from friends). Make DVD movies out of them. Print books with them. Make Web pages out of your photos.
Garage Band - Make music with pre-built "loops" of music. Play and record music on a MIDI keyboard. Record and mix live sources (microphones, guitars, etc.) with the loops and MIDI to make elaborate songs. Burn them to a CD and share them with your friends and relatives.
iTunes - Manage all your MP3s. Rip CDs you already own to smaller high-quality AAC or MP3 files on your computer and iPod. Buy music from the Apple Music Store. Buy videos on the Apple Music Store. Put your own home-made videos on your Video iPod.
The iMac G4 and iBook also come with Appleworks (http://www.apple.com/appleworks/), which is a program which does word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other typical office/student tasks. Email, Web browsing, address book and other typical daily software is included, and all pretty excellent stuff - all published by Apple Computer.
Eventually, you'll find you need software *other* than what comes with a Mac. But you might not need to worry about that yet. If you get a new Mac and just play with iLife stuff, you'll start to get a feel for "production" - thinking of an idea, planning what you need to do (both of these are actually "pre-production"), shooting (production), and editing, effects and finishing (post-production). Joni teaches college students from 18 years old to 80 years old, and some of them take months to get good at this. I suspect you'll be way ahead of most of them in just weeks (most people aren't as good at learning things as they get older, for lots of reasons). But then you'll get involved with making DVDs, and that will keep you learning for a little while longer.
To really make iMovie do anything, you'll need a digital video camera which either records to MiniDV tape or Digital-8 tape. The camera must also have a FireWire, or IEEE-1394, or "Sony iLink" connector. If your family doesn't own one already, maybe they should (hint, hint). Or maybe you have a friend who has one. They can cost as little as under $300 (better ones can cost over $4,000). Some models let you connect them to _record_ video from an old "analog" (not digital) source - like VHS or Hi8 or Video8 tape, to digital tape. So you could edit old home movies together and make a DVD out of them, for instance.
If you really want to play music with Garage Band and you can play a piano-style keyboard, you can connect a MIDI-capable synthesizer (using a MIDI adapter) or a small keyboard made just for computers (using a USB plug). The USB MIDI keyboards start at around $50, I think.
You say you're interested in "special effects." This expression has very broad meaning in the media business. There are "mechanical special effects," like building a real car than crushes itself when some computer-generated creature stomps on it. There are special effects guys who blow things up - both big (like a real building) and small (like a model spaceship). More and more, of course, "special effects' get done with computers, but even here, exactly what gets done, and who does what, varies tremendously. And a lot of the actual "work" people do in special effects is pretty un-exciting stuff. There are computer effects jobs where people just hand-trace the outline of a shot of a person moving in a scene, one frame at a time, 24 frames for every second of film. "Wire removal" jobs have people just using software and laboriously "painting out" heavy cables used to suspend actors or props, so they appear to float or fly through the air.
More and more effects are being done on computers, but I don't think that's always the best solution. For one thing, the best CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) sequences still aren't completely undetectable - and I think audiences can feel that, and they know, even if not consciously, that it's not really happening to the actors. For another thing, it's exciting to try to make things work on the set without resorting to CGI work. Yes, CGI has given us a fantastic tool for moving images, but it shouldn't replace getting to do clever things on the set.
Some people who are really smart, and really into movies eventually become "visual effects supervisors" (VFX supervisors). They have to not only know about every aspect of the craft, but they often have to invent solutions for things no one has ever done. Today, they are often involved during the production phase of a movie, and are actually there on the set with the director and actors, sometimes advising on the way something needs to be shot to make the final effect more convincing, and sometimes to make notes about what's happening on the set so that many months later they will have a good idea about how to manipulate the footage to best achieve desired results. Most VFX supervisors are probably serious movie geeks, and can tell you how every special effect in every famous "genre" movie (science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc.) was done.
You should learn about all kinds of special effects. You can get books about this, and you've probably already seen special features on DVDs of movies about them. You're only (almost) 12 years old, and so you won't be getting a job as in special effects for at least another year :-). By the time you're actually trying to *work* in VFX, a lot of the computer tools will have changed. So learning *specific* pieces of software isn't so important. Knowing what can be done, and what to call it, *is* important, and will serve you in years to come. Just start "playing." I do it all the time. You can't really get that far without actually *making* something, so come up with a project. Maybe small, at first. That will make you figure out how to do it. It might not be great, but you'll learn why, and the next time will be better - maybe a lot better. There's an amazing amount of cool technology right now that means that a 12 year old can do stuff now in his own room that took lots of people millions of dollars only a few years ago. Remind me, and we'll try to dig up some examples of things people have made with basic home equipment and a lot of cleverness.
Some of what people call "special effects" these days is computer animation. The Battle Droids and Gungans in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" are completely synthetic creations - entirely generated in a computer. Some of their movements may have been "captured" by analyzing how real humans or animals move, but ultimately, even their movements are controlled by software routines written by human programmers. There are some romantic and very unromantic parts of this process. Some of the people involved are doing serious computer programming. For the epic Invasion of Naboo, they created software that actually makes each of the thousands of Gungans move a little bit differently, not positioned by the animators, but actually following some of the key members of their group, without bumping into each other. They don't even move because of direct actions of the animators - they have kind of a library of possible behaviors, and each Gungan warrior has a little bit of randomness about how he moves.
Other programmers are just writing "code" to make smoke effects, or make things look like they're under water. Their contributions might be profound, but their work is extremely tedious work, trying to write strings of letters, characters and numbers which have the desired affect upon image files in computers. So some of these people are computer programmers, and not really doing what you'd call "art." They probably got computer programming degrees in college, and may or may not have ever thought they would be involved in show business.
Other CGI professionals work doing aesthetic work - designing. They probably studied art in school, and may or may not have used computers along the way. Over the years, software tools have developed to allow traditional artists to apply their talents in painting, photography and sculpture in the "virtual" world of CGI. These tools sometimes look and feel like traditional non-computer art tools - paint brushes, sculpting tools, cameras. These art professionals would have sculpted the first Gungan prototypes out of clay with their hands, then when the final ideas were approved, they tediously translate their sculptures to computer models.
Animators are another specialized kind of craftsperson. They have studied the art of a figure in motion. This is a very special craft, and involves being very observant and analytical about how people and animals move and act. Animation is done with many media forms - ink on paper, clay models, real objects, and computer models. Many experienced animators from the pre-computer days now work as animators in the computer world. Their skills are still valuable because they understand movement, and how it is simulated on film (which is really a bunch of still pictures played very rapidly in succession).
The the professionals that comprise a CGI "crew" on a movie have very different jobs and backgrounds. You may be interested in them all, or perhaps only one aspect of this seems interesting. Next time we talk (by email or otherswise), tell me more about what sounds like something you want to do, and we'll continue from there.