July 15, 2005

Cinelerra: Rough and ready video editor

Author: Dave Kline

The average computer user is now in quite good shape to develop and publish content. Video is a fun and challenging way to bring ideas to life and expand your skills. Needed hardware is becoming less expensive, and software to make and edit video is becoming more practical and accessible. Linux is no stranger to video, and fortunately for us little folk, its quite easy to get a hold of great Free Software tools. Enter Cinelerra, the "50,000 watt flamethrower" of Linux video.

Cinelerra is a freely available media editing suite for Linux licensed under the GPL. Cinelerra is available in two flavors: the original developer's work and an unofficial 3rd-party CVS version. Both versions share much in common, so for simplicity I will let Cinelerra refer to either version. Among its many features are the ability to work with multiple audio and video tracks, the effective use of multithreading, and the ability to perform many useful editing and exporting operations simultaneously. These features combined with such freedom are simply unheard of.


When working with video on a computer, most home users will not be concerned with much more than the Digital Video format, or DV for short. Working with video in this case would be akin to filming something with a digital video camera, capturing the video off the camera through IEEE1394 (also called Firewire), and modifying the video on the computer. When editing, try to keep your work in the same format whenever possible to prevent lossiness due to format changes. Often this means editing in DV and outputting in a more compressed format for DVD creation or web publishing.

Cinelerra can do big things, and as a result can use big hardware. Because an hour of DV is roughly 12GB, you are going to want a lot of disk space and a lot of memory. Cinelerra can be built as an AMD64/x86-64 target, so it flies on a pair of Opterons. That said, Cinelerra still works quite comfortably on more modest systems. There are reports of Celerons with 256M of ram running Cinelerra, but I would recommend at least a 1Ghz CPU and 512MB of ram. If you have the hardware to spare, you can even set up multiple machines to form a render farm.

Where does Cinelerra fit in?

Cinelerra shares company with other fine Linux video tools. Kino is another great video editor that is more geared toward quick jobs and beginners. Kino currently handles only a single combined audio/video track but includes very flexible and powerful export options. Kino also provides a well-designed interface to dvgrab, the premiere Linux IEEE1394 video capture tool. Kino offers very helpful developers and a vibrant user community. Though Cinelerra includes a DV capture facility, many will first use dvgrab or Kino and dvgrab to capture DV and then feed it into Cinelerra.

Cinelerra fills a diverse role in Linux video. Users that simply want to trim off unneeded parts of video are quite well served by Kino. These same users can use Cinelerra to simultaneously edit and add audio and video, add still images, and incorporate a myriad of complex audio and video effects. Cinelerra has high-end features such as the ability to handle High Definition video, but also can do great work with home video as well.

Some things to consider

Cinelerra is also, well, flaky. Like many people that make amazing work, the main development source, Heroine Virtual Ltd, is quite mysterious and also quite private. Cinelerra provides industrial strength capabilities and doesn't really spend a lot of time hand-holding beginners. As a result, the interface will take time to get used to. Cinelerra also has been known to crash, but thankfully there is a very useful "load backup" feature which upon restart reverts to the last successful operation. Save your work early, and save often because Cinelerra can conjure up early Netscape on Linux days: It can just disappear when you're working.

Cinelerra's stability is probably its Achilles Heel. Newcomers can certainly be deterred when they lose work if Cinelerra crashes and they hadn't saved often. Because Cinelerra can be used as a one-stop editing suite, it can be frustrating when it does one task better than others. A user can make wonderful work so its worthwhile to bear through some instability every so often.

A Quick Spin with the Flamethrower

So you're ready to jump right in with Cinelerra? You will need the following:

  • A reasonable digital video camera.
  • A reasonable Firewire card.
  • A Firewire cable to connect the camera to the Firewire card.
  • A recent kernel compiled with proper Firewire support options.
  • Dvgrab and of course Cinelerra.
  • Lots of disk space and patience.

For this example, we will use Cinelerra CVS located at http://cvs.cinelerra.org.Cinelerra CVS offers Debian packages and even PPC packages, while the main Cinelerra page offers RPM packages. We will be using a Debian Unstable system as our platform.

Your distribution should have the needed Firewire support compiled in. My 2.6 kernel has the following options:


Next install Dvgrab and Cinelerra. "apt-get install dvgrab" will install Dvgrab and its dependencies on a Debian system. Cinelerra CVS provides Debian packages via an Apt source for specific processors. Be sure to add all Apt sources as instructed on the home page. Once complete, simply issue "apt-get install cinelerra".

With a properly setup system, you are now ready to capture video. Plug the Firewire cable from your computer to your camera. Turn on your camera and rewind to the desired portion of film and press stop. From your Linux machine issue the following:

	dvgrab --format raw my_movie

Dvgrab will start your camera and grab your footage as unmodified DV data. Your movies will have filenames like "my_movie001.dv" and so on. Though Cinelerra prefers the Quicktime format, we will use "Raw" because it is compatible with Cinelerra and other tools and can later be converted easily to other formats if need be. Press "Control C" to interrupt Dvgrab once you have captured all of the footage you want.

You're now ready to give Cinelerra a spin. From the command line type "cinelerra". You will notice 4 windows: The Viewer for viewing and selecting media, the Compositor where your edited movie can be viewed and modified, the Program window with the timeline showing your video and audio tracks, and the Resources window showing effects and media.

Next we need to start a new project and load media files. Select "File" > "New" and then select "480I". This gives a reasonable NTSC setup. PAL users will of course want to set their options accordingly. Next select "File" > "Load Files". This will open a dialog box where you will select your "my_movie" files. Under "Insertion Strategy", choose "Create new resources only". Thumbnails of your added video(s) will appear under the "Media" folder of the Resources window. Simply drag a movie thumbnail into the Viewer window to preview and select clips.

The Viewer window allows you to play footage and navigate to sections you would like to keep. Once you find something you like in the Viewer, press the "[" button and then the "]" button around footage you like. These brackets are called "in points" and "out points" respectively. Press "v" to splice these onto the timeline. Notice also that the timeline has in and out points, so be mindful of these when you are splicing video together. Cinelerra will paste from the Viewer into the timeline according to where the timeline's in point is located. This process, called "Two Screen Editing", can be repeated until you have a finished product. Your movie with edits can be viewed with the Compositor window. If you make mistakes while editing, you can press "z" to undo.

After you have something simple that you like, be sure to save and optionally export your work. First, save your file into something Cinelerra understands. Go to "File" > "Save As" and choose a name like "my_movie.xml". This will save your project for future Cinelerra use. To export your work as a final movie, place brackets on the timeline around the footage you want then select "File" > "Render". You will have a dizzying array of export options to choose from. Lets keep it simple and choose "Raw DV" as the file format. Select the red checkboxes next to the "Render audio" and "Render video" options. The "Insertion Strategy" should be "Insert Nothing". Press "OK" and Cinelerra will create a Raw DV version of your edited movie.

We've just been through a crash course of but a fraction of what Cinelerra can do. Cinelerra offers much more than what was just shown. Using the above method, you can quickly create nice videos. As your skills and familiarity with the application grow, you can add multiple video tracks, special effects, music soundtracks, and much much more.


Its important to see the big picture with Cinelerra. When you can drive a car at 300mph you likely wouldn't worry that the engine is loud. By that same light, its important to judge Cinelerra by what it can do less than its quirks. Home users looking to do more with simple video footage will have amazing power at their fingers. Rarely does a software package enable so much to be done. Cinelerra forces you to see the big picture of doing things, so if you get lost in the details you will miss something truly wonderful.

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