By Dustin Sklavos
When it comes to video work, pro-grade editing suites Adobe’s CS5 include pretty much everything you’d need, while consumer-grade video editors can handle most of the grunt work for basic projects. Assuming, of course, you’re using standard equipment in standard ways for a standard project. No matter how typical your use cases, you’re eventually going to need an out-of-suite tool — and after dropping several hundred dollars on your editing software you don’t want to pay for a “corner case” tool.
I worked for a year managing a student run television station on my college campus and during my tenure I had to find applications for all kinds of odd corner cases. The computer we broadcast off of was, naturally, a PC. Unfortunately, most video clips we received weren’t presented in PC-friendly formats (thanks, Final Cut Pro). Eventually you’ll find yourself in a similar predicament with a similar budget, which is to say a tight deadline with no extra cash.
For these video emergencies I present my picks for the five most useful freeware video editing applications.
WINDOWS MEDIA ENCODER 9 x64
Microsoft has since pulled support for Windows Media Encoder in favor of their Microsoft Expression Encoder 4, but honestly I was pretty happy with Media Encoder 9. Odds are good someone will scream bloody murder at this suggestion, but Windows Media has offered fantastic compression quality for a long time, and the biggest strike against it has really just been that it has Microsoft all over it. Proprietary formats aren’t good for anyone, but Windows Media support at least ships in every version of Windows from XP onward.
Windows Media Encoder has been extremely easy to use and, while it threatens to exclude Mac users from watching your movies online (something using Flash-encoded video remedies), it works exceptionally well for people on Windows-based PCs. Expression Encoder 4 seems to be pretty solid as well and a worthy enough replacement but Media Encoder 9 remains very easy to use from the get go.
While working at the aforementioned college TV station we’d often get public service announcement videos sent to us…on DVD. Since we couldn’t just play a DVD on the station, we’d need to rip it and encode it to put it into rotation, and that’s where software like Handbrake comes in.
Fun fact, kids: it’s legal to rip the DVDs you own now. For a long time it wasn’t thanks to the onerous Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the Library of Congress blew a fair use-sized hole in that a couple of months ago. While most people pretty much ignored that law anyhow, at least now it’s on the books. Want to make an anime music video from your home library? Go nuts!
I don’t advocate movie piracy in the slightest (I actually find it abhorrent during a time when a Netflix subscription can be had for under ten bucks and most DVDs can be had used for less than five), but ripping and re-editing movies for personal use is a time honored tradition. Handbrake is a well-respected piece of software for ripping DVDs and, even if you’re not using it to rip and re-edit movies, you can at least use it to archive your film collection. Remember: the motor in a DVD drive in a notebook consumes power, and you can save yourself a lot of juice by just ripping the DVD to the hard drive before a trip and watching it that way.
ANY VIDEO CONVERTER
This program came up on my radar about a month ago and I’m impressed with it. Any Video Converter has been well-reviewed elsewhere and it deserves the praise.
It works as advertised: input just about any modern video type and it’ll spit out just about any other video type, with loads of presets and individual tweaks for each one. My only major complaint has to do with performance: my desktop has a healthy amount of horsepower under the hood (Core i7 930 overclocked to 3.6GHz), and I was disappointed to see Any Video Converter use so little of the processor. Video encoding is one of the few tasks that can still soak up as much performance as you can throw at it, and many other encoders (Adobe Media Encoder, for example) will redline every core on any processor you use.
Still, Any Video Converter is a flexible piece of kit with an easy-to-use interface, and it gets my recommendation.
FLASH VIDEO DOWNLOADER (PLUGIN FOR FIREFOX)
Flash video is all over the place on the internets, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to actually get on your computer. The Flash Video Downloader plugin does what it says: when you’re on a website with a flash video you want to save, you can click the icon next to the address bar in Firefox to download it. There are other plugins I’ve seen that will add a download link on individual pages, but they tend to be obtrusive and can tweak the way the page displays in unexpected and often frustrating ways.
As a side note, there’s no shame in collaging together other peoples’ videos to produce your own unique work, and this plugin can be very useful in doing exactly that. We live in a very remix-friendly culture, and that includes mixing videos together to create something entirely different and new.
After downloading, ripping, and encoding video and going through all that, at the end of the day…you still need something to play it. While my personal favorite video player on the PC is ZoomPlayer, it hasn’t been free for a while now. VLC Player, on the other hand, is probably one of the most capable pieces of software I’ve ever seen.
Unlike most other video players, VLC generally isn’t going to need to download codecs or update itself or any of that crap when you run it. If you have a file you want to play, VLC will probably play it, right out of the box. There’s something to be said for good playback software, especially when the video you rip from a DVD or capture from your camera may be in an unusual format. If you don’t want to open your video editor just to watch a clip, this is the way to go.
These suggestions are by no means the beginning or the end of freeware video software solutions, and I have undoubtedly made more than a few omissions that someone will be happy to correct in the forums (that’s why they’re there). This is software that I’ve used and field tested, and I know it works and gets the job done. Still, if you have other pieces of software you’ve found immensely valuable to your own work, or disagree with something I’ve recommended, please sound off in the comments.