Non-linear video editing software: Open-source alternatives to Abobe Premiere Pro CC

Summary:Adobe's shift to subscription-based cloud distribution for its flagship creative applications has left its customers with a dilemma: pay a hefty monthly/yearly subscription; carry on as long as possible with the last non-subscription version; switch to Premiere Elements; or abandon Adobe altogether. We examine some of the open-source alternatives to Premiere Pro CC.

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Video editing applications are relatively complex, high-performance products that address a three-tier market: consumers making simple home movies; more serious amateur film-makers; and professional editing for TV and cinema. Historically (as is perhaps illustrated by Adobe's recent repositioning of Premiere Pro CC towards the professional media market), video NLE developers have often struggled to decide which of those three market segments to address (and on which platforms). Many users now expect a basic home movie application such as Windows Movie Maker or Apple iMovie to be free — or at least very low cost. Commercial developers must choose whether to aim at the mass-market general user with a lower-cost product, or focus on the smaller professional market where much higher prices can be charged, but expectations are very high.

For developers of FOSS video NLE (Non Linear Editing) software, the choice is arguably determined by available development resources. Projects tend to start off with a basic function editor, with the aspiration of creating a more capable product as the release cycle progresses.

The recent and rapid growth in the development of higher-quality, higher-resolution digital imaging technologies — new camera file formats, 2K, 4K and even 8K resolutions and stereoscopic 3D — adds further complications to the development of video NLE software that's in tune with current needs, particularly in the professional market. Commercial developers, such as Adobe and Apple are (just about) able to keep up with these developments, but charge a correspondingly high price for their top-end products. The longest running FOSS projects that have managed to attract a larger number of developers offer the most mature and well-rounded applications, but generally are struggling to keep up on features and often have unsophisticated, dated-looking user interfaces.

Since 2001 there have been over 35 open-source video NLE projects, either started or restarted. Building a full-featured video NLE is no small thing, ideally requiring a large and well-organised development team, and many of these projects have struggled, merged with other projects or eventually fallen into limbo.

Something to be aware of when exploring FOSS video NLEs is that the versions available from the repositories of many Linux distributions are often early versions, or the latest stable version may lag way behind the development alphas and betas. The Software Centre for Ubuntu 13.10, for example, still offers version 0.15.2 of Pitivi. To see the latest UI and feature set it's necessary, where possible, to install the latest version from a project's own website.

NLE user interface design

It is quite a challenge to design an attractive, efficient user interface for a video NLE that also presents the user controls and menu options so that they're unobtrusive and yet easily found when needed. Because of the effect of simultaneous contrast, areas of saturated colour in the user interface of any image manipulation application can affect perception of colours within the image that's being manipulated. The theoretical ideal for any imaging application is to use a muted neutral colour palette for the elements of the user interface. In practice, this limits the design of the ideal user interface for image manipulation applications to different shades of dark grey, with small areas of saturated spot colour used to highlight status and control elements. Not long ago Adobe overhauled its flagship imaging products along these lines, using a dark charcoal palette for the bulk of the interface. Even a white to pale-grey palette, as used by many of the FOSS video NLEs, can skew contrast perception.

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A typical video NLE user interface layout. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Apart from the palette, the elements of a video NLE UI are largely determined by the requirements of the editing task and therefore there is further similarity between video NLEs. The common elements are: a project area containing the clips to be used in an edit, perhaps organised in storyboard order; clip and edit viewers; a timeline where the edit is assembled; and control panels for edit tools and video and audio effects. An elegant and usable UI, a wide range of input and output formats/codecs, and smooth playback and editing — even at high resolutions — are all qualities that make a video NLE stand out from the crowd.

Kino

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Kino is notable as one of the best-known and earliest of open-source video NLEs. Begun in 2001 and not actively maintained since 2009, the Kino project produced a quite capable video editor. Kino (last version 1.3.4) can still be useful for general editing and for testing and debugging FireWire capture.

Kino is storyboard-oriented with clips organised in storyboard order in the panel on the left of the display. Clicking the timeline button on the left does not display a conventional timeline, but rather sequential frames from the selected clip. This is useful for seeking to a particular frame by left-clicking on the chosen frame. Kino then reverts to edit mode at the point of that frame in the clip.

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Kino in edit view. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Although frequently discussed on the user forum, Kino development never reached the point of audio track or waveform display. Kino is DV-based with support for AVI (type 1 & 2) or DV raw and runs only on Linux. QuickTime support is an option.

Kdenlive

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Begun shortly after Kino, in 2002, Kdenlive is a mature and still-active video NLE project with a strong developer community. However, like many FOSS projects with relatively complex user interfaces, its UI presentation could be better. Although it's intended for the K Desktop Environment (KDE), Kdenlive will run on other desktops, including Ubuntu Unity. The current version is 0.96 with good support on the project's website for getting that version installed. Kdenlive runs on Linux distributions, FreeBSD, NetBSD and Mac OS X.

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By default when running on the Ubuntu Unity desktop environment, Kdenlive presents a pale UI palette biased towards white. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Kdenlive supports import of AVI DV, MPEG2, MPEG4, AVCHD, HDV, XDCAM-HD streams, IMX (D10) streams, DVCAM (D10), DVCAM, DVCPRO, DVCPRO50 streams and DnxHD. Exports can be to DV (PAL and NTSC), MPEG2 (PAL, NTSC and HDV) and AVCHD (HDV) and high-quality H264.

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The Kdenlive Render (export) control panel. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Kdenlive has a very large range of video and audio effects, including reverb and delay. A more in-depth explanation of its features can be found on the project's website.

Blender

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Although it's not strictly speaking a video editor, Blender, a 3D animation suite, is one of the rockstars of FOSS. After twenty years of development and now at version 2.69, Blender is a professional-level application that has been used to create many animated movies, and also to add animated titles (the OpenShot video NLE links to Blender for the creation of animated titles) and special effects to live motion. It also happens to include a quite sophisticated video NLE. The video editor is, of course, biased towards the needs of animation and the integration of animation into live motion, so it does not present an immediately familiar feel to those used to the more mainstream applicactions. Blender supports the following movie formats: AVI (Windows, JPEG and RAW), Frame Server, H.264, MPEG, Ogg Theora, QuickTime and Xvid.

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In Blender the Video Editing mode is selected via the Mode menu. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet
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Blender's video editor. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Blender uses a neutral dark-grey palette, with small colour highlights to minimise colour and contrast bias, but there is a steep learning curve in navigating its complex UI. Audio waveforms can be displayed, but audio effects are limited to basic level controls. Blender is fairly comprehensively cross platform and runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Cinelerra

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Started in 2003, Cinelerra is somewhat schizophrenic as it's developed both as the offical Cinelerra, a closed development sometimes referred to as Cinelerra HV (now at version 4.5), and as the collaborative community version, Cinelerra CV (now at 2.2). In 2008 a rewrite of Cinelerra CV eventually forked into the Lumiera project, which appears to be still active.

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Cinelerra CV 2.2 running on Ubuntu 12.10 LTS. The individual windows of Cinelerra have been resized to fill most of the visual field, but the Ubuntu desktop is still visible in the background. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Rather than the generally white default backgrounds adopted by both Kdenlive and OpenShot, Cinelerra does at least adopt a less intrusive charcoal palette for its UI. But there are still splashes of quite eye-catching bright colour, and the overall appearance is a little crude. Once launched, Cinelerra does not claim the entire desktop, but presents in the foreground as a number of floating windows.

Cinelerra runs only on various Linux distributions and is resolution- and frame-rate-independent, so theoretically it can support video of any speed and size. Only a limited range of video file formats are currently supported however, not including MTS.

Pitivi

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The Pitivi project, begun in 2004 and originally known as PiTiVi, is teasing expectations with the promise of the full release of version 1.0, although there's no sign of an ETA. Pitivi is currently at 0.92, a alpha development version.

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A screenshot of Pitivi 0.91 from the Pitivi website. Despite some effort, we were unable to install anything other than Pitivi 0.15.2, which looks very different.

The only stable release version of Pitivi available in the Ubuntu Software Center is version 0.15.2 and this really does not give a good idea of where the Pitivi project is going. Unfortunately installing the alpha of Pitivi 0.92 on Ubuntu 13.10, for example, is a bit of a performance. There are instructions on how to go about this on PauLoX.net.

Pitivi is developed in Python and in late 2013 the developers completed a major rewrite to shift the architecture onto the GES (GStreamer Editing Services) cross-platform library, so it now has a strong foundation. Unfortunately, judging by the current state of the project, Pitivi is not suitable for general use just yet. The Pitivi developers recently announced a fund raiser to help drive the project towards a 1.0 release, and it's certainly worth watching for future developments.

OpenShot

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OpenShot is a relative newcomer, the project starting in 2008. Following a Kickstarter campaign in July 2013, Jonathan Thomas — the main and at the time practically the sole developer — posted a blog entry about adding distributed editing to OpenShot and talked about a new look and new features for OpenShot 2.0, with a release date of January 2014. However, following a blog post in October 2013, which mentioned problems with workload and difficulties in hiring staff, the project seemed to falter. Then in January 2014 several new blog posts revealed the recruitment of two new developers and indicated that an alpha of OpenShot 2.0 might be available around the end of February (this has not yet appeared). OpenShot 2.0 is being developed as a cross-platform application to run on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.

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The OpenShot desktop for the current stable version 1.4.3. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

As it stands, OpenShot has all the basic elements in place and is a usable editor for straightforward video projects. It has a simple built-in titler and also links to Blender, which can create extremely complex animated titles (if you can handle its equally complex UI).

Audio waveforms are not displayed in the current version, and so cannot be used as a visual cue for synchronising video clips. Also, only a small number of rudimentary audio effects are supported.

EditShare Lightworks and Lightworks Pro

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Lightworks started life in 1989 as a video NLE designed by a group of film editors — Paul Bamborough, Nick Pollock and Neil Harris, the founders of a company called OLE Limited. It subsequently changed hands several times, and in 2009 was bought by EditShare, the current owners, along with Gee Broadcast's GeeVS video server system. Historically, Lightworks has built a strong reputation in the film-editing community and has been used on turnkey systems, with its associated Lightworks control console hardware, to edit a number of well known, big-box-office movies.

EditShare's main business is in workflow software, media storage and media management, but recently the company has been developing and promoting Lightworks for general release. Lightworks and Lightworks Pro are currently available as a full release (11.5) for Windows and Linux. EditShare also demonstrated a pre-release alpha of 11.1 running on Mac OS X at the NAB in April 2013, and an OS X beta may appear sometime this year.

EditShare has committed to releasing the Lightworks code as open source, but has been criticised for not doing so right away. The company maintains that it needs to audit the code it inherited to identify and remove any proprietary components before a full open-source release. Many video codecs, for example, are proprietary.

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The Lightworks Pro 11.5 for Linux desktop. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

An unusual feature of Lightworks is that it has no Save command. Each change is recorded as it's made and a closed edit will simply resume at the point it was when closed. Undo and Redo allow moving back and forth through the history record. Lightworks is resolution-independent and supports up to 5K file formats for realtime editing and up to 2K in realtime output monitoring without any additional hardware. The only audio effects currently available are cross-fade and EQ.

A table detailing the differences between Lightworks and Lightworks Pro is available on the Lightworks website.

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Lightworks stereoscopic 3D settings in the Project settings menu. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet
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Lightworks export menu. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

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In 2012 Adobe launched Creative Cloud, a subscription-based software distribution service with products available via direct download. In early 2013 Premiere users were expecting the release of Premiere Pro CS7 when, at its MAX conference in May, Adobe announced that future versions of the product, to be known as Premiere Pro CC, would only be available via Creative Cloud. Currently costing £17.58 per month, or £210.96 per year (inc. VAT), Premiere Pro CC is aimed squarely at the professional media market. Non-professional users were faced with either subscribing to Premiere Pro CC, moving to Adobe Premiere Elements 12 (£78.15 inc. VAT) or abandoning Adobe products altogether. For the more casual video editing software user, this certainly made FOSS alternatives look more attractive.

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The Adobe Premiere Pro CC workspace on Windows 7 64-bit. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

To say that Premiere Pro CC is feature rich is an understatement, and it's only possible to mention a fraction of its features in a comparative survey like this. From CS6 onwards, Adobe has used an efficient UI that maximises the space dedicated to the images being edited, along with a dark charcoal palette. Premiere Pro CC includes a quite comprehensive titler and provides a wide choice of video effects. There's also an extensive range of audio effects, and it's particularly easy to edit and add effects, including reverb, to audio tracks. Resolutions supported include 1K, 2K and 4K.

Premiere integrates linking to After Effects CC for more complex special effects, to Photoshop CC for editing single frames, stills and titles, while colour grading is easily achieved though SpeedGrade CC (albeit at further cost for these additional applications). Adobe's Mercury Playback Engine ensures smooth playback on a modern PC, even at high resolution, without the need for preview file generation, and completed edits can be exported to a wide range of formats.

Conclusion

Adobe Premiere Pro CC (Windows 7/8/8.1 64-bit or Mac OS X 10.7/8/9 64-bit) sets a high benchmark. In the proprietary Windows/Mac OS X market, it competes with Apple's Final Cut Pro X (Mac OS X only, £199.99) , Sony Vegas (Windows Vista/7/8/8.1 64-bit £389.95) and possibly Avid Media Composer 7 (Windows 7/8, £862.80).

If you must run Windows or Mac OS X, then, providing you're happy with Adobe's subscription model, Premiere Pro CC is a good choice of video NLE. For Mac OS X only, Apple's Final Cut Pro X is an excellent product.

For Linux users, Lightworks is now perhaps the best video NLE (based on the latest 11.5 version) and it also runs on Windows, with a Mac OS X version promised. However it's not yet FOSS, and to gain the use of the widest range of codecs and the built-in titler, users must pay a yearly subscription of £40 for Lightworks Pro (some of which covers the cost of licensing proprietary codecs).

If you only need a usable, fairly basic Linux video NLE, then OpenShot 1.4.3 is worth considering. OpenShot 2.0 may be released in the first quarter of 2014 as a cross-platform application (Linux/Windows/Mac OS X) and should be a significant advance on the current (Linux-only) 1.4.3 version.

As for the rest of the 'Linux' NLEs, Kdenlive has a good feature set and track record, with a healthy development community; Pitivi looks promising; and Cinelerra is a capable editor, although its slightly clunky graphics, floating windows and idiosyncratic operation count against it. Finally, Blender is a fantastic application for 3D animation and special effects, is cross platform and, once you learn how to use it, includes a pretty good video NLE.

Topics: Open Source, Reviews, Software

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