Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Editing with Blender's VSE

I occasionally take it upon myself to ramble about how great Blender is. As soon as the 2.5 release is finished I'm sure I'll have a lot more to talk about, though production-wise I'm locked into using 2.49 for a few more months, for safety and compatibility's sake.

I've toyed around with Blender's Video Sequence Editor (aka video editor) previously, but not much. I used it for a slide show once, I used it to put a watermark on a video, but nothing more complicated than that.

It wasn't until this week that I actually used it to do some heavy-duty editing. An 11 minute video, broken up by scenes, and I used Blender's VSE to stitch it all together and tweak the timing.

I used Blender to edit this simply so I could use it on both my Linux and Windows PCs. Had I just been working on Linux I would have used Kdenlive, which looks awesome but I haven't had a chance to use it yet. Had I edited it in Windows...well, there aren't any good open source video editors for Windows, are there? Well, there's one, Blender, and it is awesome!

I used to go back and forth between Blender and Inkscape a lot, and that is maddening. The interfaces are completely different. There's nothing wrong with Inkscape's interface, but Blender is in a class of it's own. Blender is designed for speed, and once you figure out how it works you stop thinking and start doing. That really is the best way to describe it, Blender's interface has a steep learning curve but it quickly becomes second nature.

I have similar problems when I've been using Blender for a while and move to Audacity to edit some audio. I try to scrub the timeline, when of course you can't do that in Audacity (you have no need to scrub in Audacity). Also, the mouse wheel causes panning or zooming in different directions depending on which program you're using, and it's hard to keep them straight.

The point is, going from Blender directly into another app is frustrating, partly because Blender's interface is so capable, and partly because I spend the most time in Blender so that's what I'm used to. This is one reason why the VSE is so great. The hotkeys are the same as they are in the rest of Blender.

Video and audio show up on the VSE screen as "strips". You use the same hotkeys with strips in the VSE window as you do any other objects in the 3D window. SHIFT+RMB selects multiple scrips, G "grabs" and moves them, etc.

At first, the experience is a bit different, and it's pretty intuitive to use the VSE if you're comfortable using the rest of Blender. If you're just trying Blender out for the VSE you'll have a steep learning curve, because it looks and acts nothing like any other video editor.

When you first open Blender, you see two horizontal windows. The 3d window with a cube and a light in it, and below that the Buttons window, which handles most of the object and animation properties. What's cool about Blender is, like most 3d applications, you can customize your windows. You can have four different 3d viewports, each from their own angle. In the VSE you can set up an editing workspace exactly like you want it.

For video editing, you probably want two VSE windows--one for handling strips, one that acts as a preview window--and a timeline. That's the bare minimum. You probably want a buttons window, too, in order to view and edit basic properties of audio and video clips.

Once you get some strips in the VSE, you select them with the RMB (right mouse button). If you then click the middle of the strip, you can move it around on the timeline. If you select the arrow icons on the right or left ends of the clip, you can trim the clip from whatever end you've selected. If you hit 'K', any selected clips are cut wherever the cursor is intersecting them.

I prefer to trim the clips from the ends because it leaves a transparent bar that shows how long the clip was, so if I ever have to fix something and replace an old clip with an updated version, I can see exactly what frame the clip is trimmed to.

Also, after you've trimmed a clip you can drag the arrow back to it's original position to un-trim or tweak the clip at any time. If you use 'K' to cut the clip, all you can do to restore it is undo the cut or re-import the clip.

I'll say again: The fact that the VSE acts just like the rest of Blender will be a hindrance to any outsiders trying to use it. To a Blenderhead, it's great. Probably the most comfortable I've ever been using a video editor, and I've used a lot of them over the years.

I do have a few complaints:

Blender is a 3d program so you can set the resolution to whatever you want, 100x200 or 10,000x20,000, and the VSE is no exception. This becomes a problem in the VSE because in it's preview window, there are no markings to show you where the edge of the frame is. There's just a black background behind the video. The VSE wiki entry says Blender tries to scale video clips to fit the screen. This makes me nervous, and I'd like a title safe indicator like the 3d window's camera has, or perhaps a way to easily dictate what happens to clips that are too small or too large for the chosen resolution.

There's no hotkey to start and stop playback. Out of reflex I tap the spacebar, because nearly every other video player and video editor plays/pauses videos when the spacebar is pressed. In Blender this isn't possible because the spacebar is already used to open a menu. Blender does track what window your mouse cursor is in, and the spacebar doesn't do anything in the timeline window, so perhaps they could get spacebar to to start and stop playback only when the mouse is in the timeline window. If they just bound any key to that action though, it would make editing easier.

Most video editors have a clip bank, a media library, whatever they call it, that shows all the clips you have imported, and it also makes it easy to re-use any clip just by dragging it from the bank and dropping it on the timeline. Not a big deal for me, but it would make the VSE feel a lot more like a traditional editor.

In Blender's VSE, you can't link audio and video tracks. This is a little silly to me, you'd think this would be one of the first things implemented. However, you can select both a video track and it's corresponding audio track at the same time. Cuts, trims and movements should apply to all clips that are selected..

Something that's not a complaint but is something worth mentioning is that you can perform fade in and fade outs as well as dissolves in the VSE, but it's very strange. There are two tools you need to use (that you can add just like you'd add any other strip), Cross and Color Generator. The Color Generator fills the frame with whatever color you select (via a color picker in the buttons window). You can make it black, put it in a channel over your video strip, then select both strips and add a Cross on top of them to dissolve between your strip and the Color Generator. You can also add a Cross to two stacked video clips to perform a dissolve.

NOTE: The Cross uses what order you select the strips in to determine which strip is fading in and which is fading out. The first strip you select will fade out, the second will fade in. This was quite frustrating for me until I figured out how this worked.

I know that seems like a long list of complaints, but they're all minor things and don't dissuade me from using the VSE at all. In fact, I encourage anyone out there who's comfortable with Blender or willing to take the time to learn it to try it out. The fact that it's cross-platform makes my recommendation all the more enthusiastic.



  1. The missing link-audio-and-video function is indeed strange. Anyway, the wipes needing a color generator black strip as source or target is actually the same in any professional editing system. Wipes do not emit a picture of their own, they just tell the NLE how two video sources should be mixed. And in the case you illustrated here it is a video fading to "black", which the color generator creates...

  2. You're right, that is the way most programs handle fading to black. I think my poor, tired brain, already struggling to keep up with a new interface, threw out a red flag for no good reason.

  3. Hi,

    I'm using blender in my production pipeline as well and second your positive thoughts about the blender vse interface... One tip though: There IS a shortcut for "play now" in the vse, it's like you said - everything like in blender - alt+a :)

    Happy further blending...Greetings Thomas

  4. I thought there should be a shortcut for that. Thank you, you just made my day!