March 15, 2007

Open source video editing still has a long way to go

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Once or twice a year I look at FOSS video editing tools to see if they're ready for everyday use by advanced amateur and low-end professional video makers, which is where I classify myself in the video production hierarchy. There have been several notable improvements recently that have moved FOSS video editing tools a little closer to practicality, but FOSS desktop video editing still has a long way to go before it can be taken seriously by people who need to turn out high-quality video productions on tight deadlines.

If you read publications devoted to video production -- Creative Cow is my favorite -- you'll soon learn the word "workflow" if you aren't already familiar with it.

When you're in the cost-competitive business of making corporate videos, often derisively called "industrials" by broadcast people, production speed (efficient workflow) means the difference between success and bankruptcy. Come to think of it, workflow is just as important in the broadcast world, where the hackneyed phrase, "film at eleven," means your work must be ready to run when the news show starts no matter what.

You've heard the expression, "good, fast, cheap; pick two out of three." This applies to video editing like mad. Cheap is nice, but "good" and "fast" are essential. Sony Vegas 7 for Windows (slightly over $400) and Final Cut Express HD for Mac OS X (slightly under $300) are the two least-expensive professional-quality video editing programs currently available.

Leaving the proprietary vs. freedom debate aside for a moment, an active video professional using either of these highly-developed commercial programs instead of current open source offerings will earn back their purchase price in a day or two because of their more efficient workflow capabilities.

Workflow for a typical three-minute video feature segment

Here's the process I go through to get from shooting video to finished product:

  1. Capture video from video camera.
  2. Break captured video into separate clips (an automatic procedure).
  3. Choose clips to use in final video; choose sections of some clips instead of using their full length.
  4. Place clips on timeline in rough order.
  5. Select background music and sound effects.
  6. Place live video/audio in final order. At this point video and audio are often treated separately, i.e. speakers' voices may not necessarily be used solely with images of the speaker but may have those images replaced by images of the person, place or thing the speaker is describing.
  7. Sound levels set on timeline, including fades; removal of hisses or other unwanted noises from live sound.
  8. Color correction if/as needed.
  9. Tweak video clip lengths, align with soundtrack, insert transitions.
  10. Add titles and possibly more sound effects.
  11. Last look-over, more adjustments if needed.
  12. Render in chosen output file format.

Most of the work is done directly on the timeline, not by opening each clip in a separate window when you want to make a change. And the audio editor built into the video editor should include, at a minimum, an equalizer and automatic gain control, plus the ability to group all of the clips on an audio track into a single unit and fade that track's volume up and down as needed.

Ideally, video editing software should never crash, and if it does crash it should have built-in file-recovery that really works.

And through all the editing and rendering process, we don't want to lose frames or even pixels. People who do video professionally buy expensive video cameras and microphones -- ones that give clear pictures and sound in a wide variety of conditions -- and expect that clarity to be preserved or even enhanced by their editing software.

All of this can be done with FOSS, but...

FireWire on Linux is now fully usable, and this is the biggest advance in FOSS video editing usability I've seen. Ubuntu 6.10, released in late 2006, was the first Linux distribution I tried that detected a FireWire PCMCIA card without any fiddling. (Since I do a lot of mobile/remote production, I use a laptop for most of my video editing.) Kino and Cinelerra install on Ubuntu with a couple of apt-get commands or a few Synaptic mouse clicks.

Kino captures video (although not high-definition video) competently through a FireWire port, and Cinelerra can do most video editing tasks if you are willing to spend three to ten times as long doing them as you would with Vegas or Final Cut.

And you can use Audacity to produce sophisticated sound tracks if you have time to re-synch them with your video when you're done, and you're willing to re-synch again after even the most minor change in either your video or your audio.

I do not have a high opinion of Cinelerra. If you are accustomed to Sony Vegas, Final Cut, Avid or other high-end video editing packages, you will find Cinelerra painfully clunky. Of course, once you've gotten used to really good video editing software, you won't like most proprietary consumer-level video editing products, either, not even MainActor (for Linux or Windows), which costs more than three times as much as the much more capable Magix Movie Edit Pro (for Windows only).

I have had no luck using Jahshaka, and although I have downloaded GStreamer-based PiTiVi from the Ubuntu archives, so far I have not gotten it to start up successfully, let along do anything useful with it.

Kino has recently developed into a competent clip editor. If all you want to do is trim the ends from a single video clip, it does that well. I have not yet succeeded in adding titles to Kino videos -- crash problems -- and its output formats are limited. Kino is not, and is not intended to be, a viable professional-level video editor. But at least it has become usable, and it shows promise for the future. In another year or two, at its current development rate, it should be roughly equivalent to iMovie or Windows Movie Maker.

It's OK to spend money to make money

Richard M. Stallman has said, more than once, that the one justifiable reason to use proprietary software is that there is no free software equivalent available. I'm afraid that this is the case in the video editing world -- and will be for a long time to come. Video editing is an incredibly complex computer task.

I did my first "video" edits with film and razor blades, so I am often amazed at how easy it has gotten -- with high-level proprietary software -- to turn out professional-quality video work, and I am especially amazed that it now can be done on an inexpensive desktop computer instead of requiring a special, high-powered workstation. Beyond those miracles, asking for my video editing software to be free (in either sense) almost seems like too much.

I don't mind spending money on video software. While much of the video I make is for fun and entertainment, I do enough paid video work that I can afford to buy the software, video cameras, and other gear it takes to make decent-quality video. Since most of my commercial video work is done on tight deadlines, and most of my "fun" video is done in between other -- usually job-related -- tasks, editing speed (workflow) dictates that I must have the most capable editing tools I can afford.

You saw my video "task list" above. I look forward to the day when there is an open source video editor that can do everything on that list quickly and efficiently. That will be the day I can proudly say I do all my video editing work using free software.

But, back in the present tense, I have a commercial shoot scheduled for this weekend, and I don't think we're going to have production-quality free or open source video editing software available by then. Sigh.