If you want to get into video editing but not spend a fortune, there are plenty of wallet-friendly NLEs and other tools to get you started.
Some wonderful creative opportunities are open to videographers these days. From simple pocket recorders to the film‑like quality of DSLR footage, the price of all levels of production is dropping at an exciting rate. Of course, cameras, lenses and memory cards are only part of video production. Software for editing, converting and playing video files is just as important — so you'll be happy to know that there are lots of different video tools available that'll help you get going on a small budget.
If you want to work with the latest video formats and produce advanced broadcast‑level effects and productions, you'll have to spend quite a bit to access the relevant software features. But if, like many users, you're looking to produce quick and simple edits, you might find that one of the entry level NLEs (Non-Linear Editors) suits you just fine, saving you a fair bit of cash.
All of the major players in the NLE game produce a cut‑down version of their software for use by beginners or those who don't need the features of a top‑of‑the‑line editing package. For the most part, users will find they don't really need many of the pro features until their ambitions and skills grow to match the high‑end software. Something to remain aware of, however, is that since these packages are often aimed at producing holiday videos and the like, they'll be full of effects, transitions and wipes (star wipe, anyone?) that can cheapen the look of your music video or film. Unless you have a well‑targeted and controlled ironic humour in your piece, these effects can often be seen as amateurish!
Many of the budget cameras available at the moment record in AVCHD format, which results in small files that are of high quality, but difficult for the computer to edit. Your computer needn't be monstrously powerful for HD editing, but an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66 CPU is a realistic minimum‑spec for dealing with AVCHD video, while a high‑powered i7 processor is ideal. You'll want all the high‑speed RAM you can get, but since 4GB seems a minimum even for laptops these days, many standard machines should be able to make it through an edit. Luckily, the cost of such computer systems is falling all the time, so HD editing capabilities are within reach of far more of us. All of the entry‑level NLE software listed has been updated to edit AVCHD footage, either in its native form or by converting it.
Also note that many of the programs listed are available in demo versions, so you can download them and have a go before you commit the cash.
Adobe make Premiere Pro as well as the full-blown Creative Suite package, which includes Photoshop and other high‑end creative programs. These are powerful but very expensive, so Adobe produce cut‑down 'Elements' editions of selected programs as well. Premiere Elements is available for OS X and Windows, and provides a simpler layout than Premiere Pro CS5.
This doesn't mean you can't cut together a good edit, just that the interface is less option‑laden and more immediate than that of a professional NLE. There are a few unusual tools too, such as the InstantMovie function that uses templates and effects to automatically create a movie from a selection of clips. However, Elements remains a good way to get to grips with cutting video, especially if you find the whole idea a little daunting. Premiere Elements 9 will also handle Canon DSLR footage natively, and is currently the least expensive way to edit 24p footage on a Mac. It can be yours for $99£74.
Avid are the creators of both Pro Tools and Media Composer, two very big hitters in the worlds of audio and video production, respectively. Their Windows‑only Pinnacle Studio comes in multiple flavours, all of which use the same interface for editing. View modes are switchable between a multi‑track, NLE‑style view and a simpler, clip‑based view.
In addition to the $49£49 basic version, there are a couple of expanded editions available. Pinnacle Studio HD Ultimate $99(£79) gives you motion-titling capabilities, keyframing of effects (the video equivalent of automation), Blu‑ray burning and the Toon‑it and Knoll Light Factory plug‑ins. The former is an effect that turns video into cartoon-style footage, while the latter is a comprehensive lens‑flare creation tool.
The top-of-the-line package, Studio HD Ultimate Collection $129(£99), gives you even more goodies, namely Red Giant plug‑ins including Trapcode Particular, Shine and 3D Stroke, as well as Magic Bullet Looks, a particularly easy-to-use, yet powerful colour-grading program. The Ultimate Collection is exceptionally good value considering the licence price of these plug‑ins when bought on their own.
Apple produce the full‑scale Final Cut Studio suite of programs, which is extremely powerful and versatile, but has quite a learning curve. At the other end of the scale is the simplistic iMovie. Final Cut Express (Mac only) falls somewhere in the middle, and the interface is so similar to Final Cut Pro that it serves as a great stepping stone into professional editing.
Final Cut Express supports import from tape and AVCHD cameras, but, much like Final Cut Pro (which likes you to transcode video in Apple ProRes format), will transcode AVCHD footage into Apple Intermediate Codec for editing. This means you'll be waiting longer before you can edit your footage than you would with an NLE that can handle the footage 'natively'.
Final Cut Express is one of the least 'dumbed‑down' budget NLEs available, probably due to the fact that iMovie fills the consumer‑editing space in Apple's software line‑up, so it's a great option for Mac users. Final Cut Express 4 costs $199£129.
Though less of a household name than Apple, for example, Grass Valley are a big player in broadcast, producing cameras, interfaces, software and more besides. Edius Neo (£145$229) is a cut‑down version of their Edius NLE, but remains extremely full featured for an 'entry level' product. Being pared down from their Edius 6 software (reviewed in this issue), the Windows‑only Edius Neo 3 supports native editing of a wide range of codecs, including Canon EOS DSLR footage (Quicktime H264).
You can add unlimited video and audio tracks to a session, and the editing view itself is very professional. Unlike many other cut‑down NLEs, Edius Neo is not designed to cater for the family holiday snaps, but for the serious editor on a budget. Most of the limitations imposed relate to in‑depth production techniques such as proxy editing, 4K video and direct export to Adobe After Effects. The software allows chroma‑keying ('green screen' work) and comprehensive titling as standard.
Sony Vegas is known for being easy to get to grips with if your experience lies primarily in DAW use. Its roots lie in DAW territory, and it still has some great features that don't appear elsewhere, such as DAW‑style audio tracks in the timeline, with their own volume sliders and pan controls.
Movie Studio HD Platinum ($95£59) handles a variety of HD and SD formats, and benefits from a simple layout. The included processors are very well targeted too, including three‑way primary and secondary colour‑correction, and an effect for removing subtle camera shake. It also offers GPU-accelerated AVCHD encoding for those with certain Nvidia Graphics cards.
Vegas offers a quick and powerful video‑editing environment for Windows users, providing an efficient, uncluttered, but not at all 'dumbed down' interface. It's especially good if you need to turn around an edit as quickly as possible.
There are plenty of useful free and open‑source video apps available online, whether you're creating a video yourself, making music or sound for a video, or just playing back a preview of a video that someone has created for you. We can't list them all, but there are a few I find especially helpful with day-to-day video tasks.
Most of us have experienced the frustration of opening a video file that won't play properly in our usual software, or, in some annoying cases, only plays the sound, so to start with, installing a variety of players can help.
Transcoding is another area where the Internet can save the day. In the past, I've been sent enormous video files to produce sound and music for, only to find that my sequencer, not being optimised for video, couldn't really keep up with playback. In such cases, creating a much smaller file (in both resolution and size) can be very useful, helping the DAW to stay in sync and leaving more computer resources for audio production. This is where 'transcoding' comes into play. Transcoding can also help if you have a footage in a non‑standard format and want to edit it in software that's optimised for another format. Happily, there are a few great free tools available for this.
If you use Final Cut Studio, ProRes will already be installed on your system. If you don't use it, but you need to view ProRes files, transcode them, or edit them in another compatible NLE, you can install the Apple ProRes Decoder. I'm primarily a user of Premiere and After Effects CS5 for PC, but I've occasionally found myself working on footage that's come from Final Cut Pro users. In order for my software to decode the files, ProRes Decoder needs to be installed. It's available for both Windows and OS X.
Apple's Quicktime software is an essential component for many other tools and programs, so it's well worth having it installed. If you're using Windows, you'll have to download it from Apple's web site. If you're using Mac OS X, it'll already be installed. Snow Leopard includes a version called Quicktime X, which offers enhanced playback of H264 video and the handy feature of being able to record a screen‑capture video. If you're not running Snow Leopard, you can get desktop video capture by paying $30 for Quicktime Pro, which also allows conversion of video, and adds H264 encoding to some other pieces of software too.
Free for both OS X and Windows, Handbrake is very useful. If you want to play back a video clip on an iPod, for example, and don't have ages to spend learning what the relevant settings actually mean, Handbrake will make your life much easier with its list of presets for common devices such as iPhone and iPod. It really takes the hassle out of converting your latest masterpiece to fit in your pocket!
A freeware tool for OS X and Windows, Mediainfo is great for helping you discover every little statistic relating to a particular video file. At the moment, there is no graphical user interface for the Intel-only OS X version, so you'll need to download the PPC Universal Binary for newer Macs.
Some types of 'container' (MOV, AVI and MP4 are all examples of containers that can hold different codecs or video formats) don't store as many details as others, but Mediainfo will let you uncover everything there is to be seen. The interface lets you look at file information in a number of 'Views'. Easy View is the simplest, and presents the essential nuggets, such as codec type, frame‑rate and so on, in separate boxes. If you've got a deeper understanding of video codecs, you can choose from a variety of in‑depth views, which provide what can only be described as exhaustive information about files.
This program can be very useful for tracing problems too, especially if one file in an editing project is giving you grief and you can't work out why, or you need to ask a question relating to formats on an on-line video forum.
It may sound like an odd choice, but for Windows users, Media Player Classic is a great player. It's very, very simple, and this simplicity appears to lend itself to adapting easily to a vast number of codecs, which it plays back with ease. Indeed, Media Player Classic's compatibility and CPU‑load free playback is well documented.
If you'd like to install a whole group of codecs that pretty much ensures you can play back any video you receive, installing the Combined Community Codec Pack will put a bundle of free codecs, as well as Media Player Classic Home Cinema, a more recent version of Media Player, at your disposal.
There are some known compatibility issues regarding certain non-linear editing software when codec packs are installed, so do have a quick check to see if you're likely to have problems with your NLE before installing the codec pack.
This freeware OS X and Windows tool is extremely useful for batch encoding and transcoding jobs. When I've imported footage from my Canon DSLR, and want to convert it to something of higher quality for post production, I pile all of the files into MPEG Streamclip and use its batch convertor. It can handle a vast array of formats, and can even place a watermark on your footage if you'd like! It's also very quick, and stable enough to leave running in the background, allowing you to get on with something else.
A freeware component for Quicktime, Perian adds native support for a number of formats to OS X. It's very useful if you're not using the full professional version of Final Cut on a Mac, but find you need the ability to play back and review a video in a format that Quicktime doesn't support by default.
Probably one of the best-known freeware players available, VLC can play many formats with great efficiency, once you have the codecs installed. It can also be used to convert a file, using the Media‑Convert/Save option.
There has never been a better time to consider video production, especially if you already have a background in audio work. Getting to grips with the basics needn't cost the earth, and the features available in budget software are expanding all the time, as prices remain low, or even fall further.
If you download a demo of an NLE that sounds attractive to you, it really shouldn't take too long to get to grips with the basics of video editing. Setting yourself up with a selection of the free software tools listed above will mean that you'll be able to play back and convert video files in common formats, and export them for viewing on mobile devices and computers, or via video-streaming web sites.