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Watching the evolution of open source tools for video editing and manipulation over the last 10 years has been less than a thrilling experience. But are things about to change for the better in the near future? Can even the people most disenchanted with the current state of affairs feel tempted to regain a spark of hope?
The everyday user of GNU/Linux (or any of the other Unix-derived operating systems out there) can presently watch, listen to, and even produce rudimentary media content quite comfortably, but open source has not kept up with proprietary software vendors when it comes to the development of professional and semi-professional video editing tools.
I've always maintained that one of the great strengths of Linux is the ability to create distributions that are tailored for specific areas of professional activity. But, while there are some good distros around that appeal specifically to the video and audio crowd (like dyne:bolic and Ubuntu Studio), their number is small, and some of them have stagnated or even completely disappeared over the years.
One of the roots of this problem is that there is currently no professional level non-linear video editor for Linux. Adding to this, almost all of the video editors currently available have development rates that are alarmingly slow. Let's take a look at the best choices we have right now:
There are video editors that I could never compile, or whose latest release is more than five years old. Among them are: Vivia, ZS4, and Scilab Aurora. I won't look into them. Avidemux can perform basic editing operations, but that's not its main function.
Let's start with the most basic video editors. First on the list is Kino. Kino is a very simple tool, but is the most stable and robust of all the Linux-based video editors I have tested. It has never crashed on me. For the casual user, Kino may be the only place they need to look to satisfy their editing needs. It allows capture from a camcorder, basic editing, adding transitions and effects, and exporting to other formats. Unfortunately, it's too limited for experienced video editors. It lacks essential features such as multiple video and audio tracks, advanced titling, and compositing. These will probably not be added in the future, as Kino seems to have a clear idea of where it belongs, and is sticking to its niche. I currently use Kino to capture raw footage, and often for exporting video to various formats -- after I edit my video with another program.
Moving beyond Kino, we have editors that support multiple video and audio itracks, and seem to have some hope of gaining additional utility (although not much). First is Kdenlive, which seems to be a promising project. Or rather, it seemed. The truth is, it's being developed too slowly, and it's still in a stage where it crashes too frequently on too many systems. Then we have Pitivi, which is still too young to be correctly assessed, but which will certainly occupy the same niche as Kino and Kdenlive, making it almost non-relevant for video professionals.
I've used Open Movie Editor enough times to be able to say it's a solid application with a nice set of features. These two positive points are enough to make me keep an eye on its development. Then we have LiVES, which shares these positive traits as well, and seems to be updated very regularly as of late, even trying to make the life of developers easier with a plugin builder bundled. Both of them seem to be good bets for the more advanced hobbyist at the present, and perhaps for the video professional in the future (if they can add compositing and a broader range of plugins and effects to their feature list).
MainActor is the only commercial application on this list. It is no longer available. It was no Avid Xpress or Final Cut, but its mere existence was encouraging. There is currently a petition aimed at the company that developed MainActor asking them to release the code (or parts of it) to the public.
Jahshaka is one of the most hyped pieces of open source software I've encountered. The vision of the developers was (and is) an application designed from scratch to be an editing and compositing powerhouse. The hype promoted on their website was so effective that for many years I (and many others) eagerly awaited a stable release with all the industry-standard features that I'd been promised. At some point, Jahshaka even had corporate sponsors, including Nvidia. But that turned into a mess which would take too much space to present here. The good news is that, on January of this year, according to the developers, Jahshaka was "liberated from its evil benefactors," which means that they can now resume their original path. And I have to admit: I know I shouldn't, but I still have great expectations for Jahshaka.
I use Cinelerra as my main application for video editing and compositing. It is professional and capable in some areas, and barely at alpha stage in others. First released by an anonymous entity/person called Heroine Virtual, for years it remained a paradox: it was the most powerful FOSS video editor and compositor available, but was also notoriously unstable, had a hideous interface, and its development pace was glacial. A community version of Cinelerra appeared later, which was basically a patched and bug-fixed version of the original Cinelerra, done by other developers (with the consent of Heroine Virtual). I'm using the latest community version of Cinelerra, and I can say it's now stable enough for almost all production purposes.
Cinelerra's learning curve may be a little steep for beginners, but it's worth it (and the community provides good documentation). It has some features that you can only otherwise find in commercial applications, including video and audio multitracking, some decent bundled effects (among them LADSPA audio plugins), a good compositor, three-point editing, and motion tracking. Cinelerra also supports renderfarming natively, which puts it on a class of its own. With Cinelerra it's dead easy to set up a render farm with five or six nodes, and watch your render times take a significant decrease.
Complaints include: lack of more pleasant themes, lack of advanced titling, lack of more video effects (and poor documentation for the ones included by default), and better capture and render functionality.
Finally, we come to Blender. Outside of pure video editing applications, I would like to point it out as an example to follow. It is feature-rich, powerful, has lots of manpower working on it, and tutorials and videos about it abound on the Internet. And, surprisingly, it allows quite reliable video editing and compositing. However, as good an all-rounder Blender may be, we still need -- and I cannot stress this enough -- good standalone non-linear video editors.
To say this to a video professional would have seemed like a bad joke ten years ago, but Linux has turned into a good platform for multimedia creation and manipulation. What's lacking is the tools. We need more powerful, more feature-rich tools. Even Hollywood seems to be using Linux these days (and not just for rendering tasks), but the studios use their own in-house applications. I'm not the only video professional using FOSS who is disgruntled with the state of things.
Let's face it: most video professionals who use Linux in conjunction with FOSS tools as their main platform for video editing do it because of:
Note that neither richness of features nor the presence of industry standard features are on that list. There are also two important external factors that I want to point out and that should invite reflection:
I want to finish by mentioning compositing and special effects again. These are areas that have been sorely overlooked. I'm not asking for Adobe After Effects for Linux, rather something on a smaller and more practical scale with FXhome being the perfect example of the type of applications we need to fill the gap. Regarding compositing, Cinelerra is the only FOSS application that currently allows me to produce decent results (excluding Blender).
My main hopes for the near future are on Jahshaka and Cinelerra, thanks to the recent news I already mentioned. The key, I think, is speed of development, and decent scheduling of major releases. Do not be mistaken -- it will take years to develop high-end open source video software, and the video professional cannot wait years. However, this area finally seems to be heading in a better direction than it was even a few years ago, and that may allow for a bit of optimism on our part.
Rui Lopes is a Portuguese Web designer and filmmaker who has a wide range of interests in the technology field.