Why You Should and Shouldn’t Learn Lightworks Video Editing Software

Why You Should and Shouldn’t Learn Lightworks Video Editing Software

Lightworks is an Academy and Emmy award winning professional-grade non-linear editor that, in the past 25 years, has been used to edit numerous large-scale feature films including but not limited to Pulp Fiction, Batman, and The King’s Speech. Traditionally marketed as a turnkey solution for production studios, Lightworks was not available to the general public until 2013, when it was astonishingly offered as a free download for Windows users. Eventually the software was ported to Linux and Mac with promises of open source code in the near future, making Lightworks the only professional, open-source, cross-platform video editor. With this broader scope came a quiet restructuring of Lightworks’ roadmap which as of this writing has yet to be sufficiently addressed by EditShare, the current owner of Lightworks. While Lightworks is still technically free (as in beer), it’s utility as free software is dubious at best, and it’s future as open-source software is uncertain. Depending on your expectations, philosophy, and available resources, Lightworks may or may not be a wise investment for your production studio.

Where Lightworks excels

While I jokingly refer to the Lightworks interface as UI by Playskool, this is not “My First Video Editor”. Lightworks is a remarkably powerful application, with tools designed for speedy and precise editing. The trimming tools are in the same league as Avid, and the keyboard controls are natural and intuitive. Design elements aside, Lightworks feels quite similar to Avid overall, and that’s a very good thing considering Avid is still the de facto editing solution for industry professionals. It isn’t much of a stretch to move from Avid to Lightworks, though Final Cut and Premiere users will likely encounter a short but steep learning curve. Once mastered, the superb keyboard controls make editing in Lightworks fast and fun.

Lightworks also comes equipped with a surprisingly powerful node-based compositor including a wide range of built-in and community-made effects. It certainly doesn’t rival a dedicated effects program, but can still pull off some amazing movie magic. While development has slowed considerably, the software has improved vastly in the years I’ve been using it, with key features such as the media manager being completely overhauled. It is exciting to see the program evolve and mature over time.

Where Lightworks falls short

For being a professional-oriented application, Lightworks is surprisingly unstable. In all of my time with the program, across multiple versions and computers, I’ve experienced frequent crashes, maddening bugs, and a particularly bizarre instance in which I was locked out of one of my projects. This instability makes it difficult to depend on Lightworks in a deadline-focused production environment. Traditionally Lightworks has run on tightly controlled systems, so I have faith that stability will continue to improve as more users with varying workstations report issues.

Where Lightworks excels at cutting and trimming video, it fails in audio. Audio adjustments are awkwardly split between track and clip settings, and panning is limited to a global mixer that can’t be key-framed. It could be argued that Lightworks is not an audio editor, but for most small productions it kind of needs to be.

The node-based effects editor, a welcome, versatile tool, is often complicated and difficult to route properly. It’s fine for very simple effects, but try merging multiple chroma-keyed video streams and things quickly go south. Again it could be argued that Lightworks is not a compositor, but the tools exist and should work as advertised.

What are the best alternatives to Lightworks?

The obvious competitors to Lightworks are Avid, Adobe Premiere, and Final Cut Pro. The availability of these applications depends on your operating system of choice. Avid and Premiere run on both Mac OS and Windows, where Final Cut Pro is only available for Mac users. Final Cut, for better or worse, deviates radically from standard non-linear editor form. If you have no biases about how an NLE should work, FCP may strike a chord with you. Premiere is a powerhouse that integrates well with other Adobe applications, but lacks the trimming finesse found in Lightworks. Both applications are capable editors, it just comes down to personal tastes and available/preferred operating system.

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer Linux, our choices are significantly fewer. While there are an abundance of free and open-source video editors available to Linux users, none of them quite compare to Lightworks. Flowblade and Kdenlive are two very promising up-and-comers, and the age-old Cinelerra is being reworked by new developers under the name Lumiera. With any luck, one of these applications will grow into a proper Lightworks rival.

Isn’t Lightworks free software?

Lightworks 11 was an impressive, fully-functional non-linear editor available for anyone to download and use absolutely free of charge. Not only that, EditShare promised to make the application open-source once the Linux and Mac ports were complete. This all quietly changed with the release of the highly crippled version 12. From the 12.0 release on, users with a free license were restricted to exporting a maximum of 720p video using the lossy h.264 codec, essentially making the application a free trial. While going open-source is still technically on the development road map, EditShare has remained suspiciously quiet on the subject, and even instated a policy on their online forums to lock any thread attempting to discuss open-source. The forum moderators remain aggressively defensive about EditShare’s decision, often asserting their authority with a condescending statement before locking threads. This is no way to establish a positive community. EditShare’s coy behavior surrounding the open-source issue seems to drive the nail in the coffin.

Factoring in the cost of video editing software

As a long term solution, Lightworks is only slightly less expensive than Premiere and significantly more expensive than Final Cut. Granted with Final Cut you also have to invest in pricey Apple hardware. At $1,300 for a single Media Composer license, Avid is prohibitively expensive for hobbyists and small studios.

In most cases it is unlikely that an editing suite is needed every day, and this is where Lightworks starts to make sense. Because the free version of Lightworks can still import the same formats as the Pro version, it would be possible to take a project to completion using only Lightworks Free, then upgrade to Pro for one month ($25) just to export the final cut.

Closing thoughts

I got on the Lightworks bandwagon to support free (as in freedom) software, allowing anyone with any budget access to professional-grade video production. With EditShare’s apparent shift away from free software, Lightworks doesn’t shine quite like it used to. It’s difficult to recommend Lightworks to those who are not committed to media production on Linux, unless they are willing to do a bit of license juggling, or only need a video editor for a one-off project. While I’m disappointed with EditShare’s current trajectory, I’m thrilled to be running a professional video editor on a free operating system. I remain optimistic about the video production landscape changing as FOSS editors mature, but unless Lightworks once again radically restructures, it’s safe to say that it is not “the professional editor for everyone”.

That said, I do recommend taking Lightworks for a spin. A skilled editor should be able to sit down at any workstation and apply the same editing principles. At the end of the day, all of these applications are merely tools; the techniques largely stay the same. Familiarity with Lightworks diversifies an editor’s toolkit and provides insight to and appreciation for the craft.

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About the Author

Why You Should and Shouldn’t Learn Lightworks Video Editing Software was posted by on . I am one half of the creative force behind Dototot. I'm a writer, web programmer, composer, designer, and video editor with an interest in all things digital media.

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  • Herbert123

    BlackMagic’s Davinci Resolve is quickly becoming a great free alternative for video editors – and the colour grading tools are second to none. Throw in Fusion (which is now available for Mac as well), and anyone can work with professional grade software on projects up to 4K.

    My experience with LightWorks reflects yours: initially I was elated in the release of the entirely free version, and the roadmap to go open source promised a bright future. Unfortunately, the company behind LightWorks decided to make a 180 degree turn. I stopped using LightWorks, and invested in Premiere. Lately I have been switching to Davinci, since I refuse to become a serf in Adobe’s Digital Serfdom.

    The LightWorks forum has become somewhat hostile towards anyone questioning the roadmap, or mentioning competing products – or indeed any criticism pointed at the product. It is a shame. I have been using Davinci more and more for my primary editing needs – it works quite well. BlackMagic has done a tremendous job in such a short time.

    Addendum: from a teacher’s point of view, Davinci’s hefty hardware requirements may be a challenge to overcome in educational environments.

  • Wow, Davinci looks awesome! I always thought it was strictly for color grading. Unfortunately I wiped my Windows partition, so I can’t check it out.

  • David R.

    Resolve, as with any modern high powered professional video finishing software is designed to run on fairly powerful graphics grade workstations. A minimum entry level desktop workstation to run Resolve reasonably well will set you back around $1500. Add a grand to that for a laptop workstation. Resolve has a steep learning curve too, and is not at all intuitive for a novice. The manual is more than 950 pages.

  • David R.

    Counterpoint from a serious hobbyist filmmaker who has used Lightworks since the first V10 beta release. But first a little background.

    I am a video systems engineer by trade these days. My professional production background was in the 1970’s and 80’s primarily shooting 16mm film for television production. Then it was a collaborative production process involving many people and services from film labs to heavy iron online finishing facilities. Film editing was an offline process cutting work prints and analog magfilm soundtracks on Moviolas and Steenbeck flatbed editors. Finishing involved conforming the negatives, sound tracks, and video transfers from a written edit decision list. This was the process that Lightworks was originally developed to streamline as supercomputers and digital video formats emerged that were powerful enough for the task.

    Coming from editing film, Lightworks for me was a very intuitive and efficient choice. It just clicked. It is organized around a film editor’s paradigm. I switched from Premiere and never looked back.

    As with the Steenbeck offline film desks it emulates, Lightworks is built primarily for collaborative production teams using multiple specialized programs in a shared network digital media environment. It is not intended to be the ingest anything, output anything, do it all in one app on your desktop program. It interfaces with many industry standard post software packages for graphics, compositing, FX, sound, transcoding, finishing via AAF, XML, EDL edit decision databases.

    It is the work print assembly tool par excellence where all of these various elements are organized, coordinated, and assembled for review. Fast, lightweight, and efficient.

    As a serious hobbyist I shoot only personal creative projects in uncompressed cinema DNG raw format, edit in uncompressed 800Mbps broadcast video DI codecs, and compress to an appropriate delivery format for the intended destination whether Vimeo or direct DCI large screen digital projection. I use the custom Lightworks keyboard and a Contour Shuttlepro 2 jog/shuttle console the way the program was designed to function at its best. For me Lightworks is rock stable with very few issues. My most pressing issue is needing a fast raid array to move the uncompressed video data around without bottlenecks.

    I try to help others learn the program and solve problems on the Lightworks forum when I can. Most issues that novices think are software bugs aren’t. Most of the performance and stability issues that come up fall into just a few well defined areas.

    1. Not taking the time and effort to learn how the program actually works.

    2. Inadequate computer hardware to run the program well.

    3. Using highly compressed long GOP low bitrate streaming video codecs that don’t strictly conform to broadcast or digital cinema standards and weren’t designed for precision editing. The worst offenders are screen capture/game capture programs that capture in variable frame rates at non standard resolutions. No NLE functions well with these and it actually takes a lot more computer power to edit these than the high end professional DI codecs. Lightworks is picky about video quality and won’t even recognize really garbage video formats. Most of the low end consumer/prosumer cameras these days shoot H.264 MPEG4 AVC of one form or another, a codec that was designed more for efficient streaming and small file size than for high quality original acquisition. They don’t edit well. Most of us transcode these to a higher quality all i-frame DI format for editing.

    Versions 10 and 11 ran mostly under FFMPEG and the freely distributed older non-licensed Matrox codec libraries. Version 12 switched to better supported and more advanced Main Concept codec SDK’s necessary to adapt to and support emerging advanced production formats, including 4k. Most of these advanced codecs are proprietary to their developers and cost money to license for distribution. These are bundled in progressively more costly packages as one moves from low to high end production formats. Licensing restrictions changed the freeware approach of the older program versions. Given the new development path essential to support its core professional markets, I don’t see how a functional open source freeware version could be released, since it could not include the import/export SDK’s provided by Main Concept. Unlike Black Magic, Editshare does not have a huge base of highly profitable consumer hardware products to support its development costs.

  • In fact I agree with everything you said, except the stability issues. I’ve been using Lightworks for many years now, and pretty much know it inside out. I always transcode media on import, and while my computer is a few years old, it’s nothing to scoff at. Yet stability is a big problem for me. Each release gets a little better, but it’s still not what I would call dependable.

    The codec licensing conundrum could be solved by removing the proprietary bits and releasing the source to a separate group of community developers for an FFMPEG or gstreamer edition, in much the same way that Cinelerra feeds Cinelerra CV. The problem is finding a community willing to take on Lightworks million+ lines of code. Assuming they successfully build an FFMPEG edition of Lightworks, I would think many paying Lightworks users would jump ship for the free version (I know I would). It’s fine if EditShare has realized their original goal of providing a free & open source editor was unrealistic, I just wish they were being more direct and honest about it.

  • Adolfo Brandes

    First off, great post. It touches on something most other discussions don’t: Lightworks is one of the very few modern NLEs that run natively on Linux. However, as you well put, it’s not very stable, and more importantly, it’s not FOSS.

    I’ve been toying with Blender’s VSE as an alternative, and I must say I’m happy. The workflow is not as efficient as Lightworks’ (no 3-point editing and transitions are a bit more cumbersome), but due to its extensibility, the community has been able to close the gap significantly. There are also bonafide advantages, especially to the hobbyist: for instance, it can not only ingest any format and codec with no need for transcoding, but also output any of them (Instagram square videos, anyone?).

  • Nicholas Matthew Carroll

    Yes Editshare’s behaviour regarding the Lightworks open source program is just disgraceful. Already a customer, I will continue to take them on their word, which currently is that they will go through with it (the day after the world ends).

    Regarding the persistent instability: there was a rearchitecting of Lightworks to make it cross platform. I hope that is not the cause. That would be the final straw if I found that out.

  • Robin Hahn

    I run Resolve (for colour grading, primarily, and also was playing with video-stabilisation) in Win7 running in VirtualBox. Seemed to run fairly well, even though I haven’t got a crash-hot system by any means. But then, I was just editing small bits of video in Resolve, not an entire production, so YMMV.

  • Robin Hahn

    I just renewed my subscription with EditShare for Lightworks, but I’ll have to admit I’m conflicted about it. I’m strictly an amateur videographer trying to create mood works / travelogues / that-sort-of-thing. Videos with music. Stuff few people want, but hey, pretty to look at, if that’s your thing. Hence, not a lot of money in it, but that’s okay, my budget is small too. Have “upgraded” my T3i to a mirrorless A6000 and am eyeing older Zeiss glass on ebay for the effect I’m after.
    I’m huge on FOSS, and have actually been able to get Blender’s VSE to do quite decently for me, so much so that I really pondered whether Lwks was a necessary thing to keep investing in: got into it when the Linux version was still very much in beta, so am paying the ‘grandfathered’ subscription price. I think I’ll have to be getting into 4K in a big way to justify AUD$113 (US$80) per year. I do like being able to export to 1080p (not to Vimeo, just export to file) and the interface… like with Blender, I really like the hotkeys.
    I just wish I could find a decent video-stabilisation solution in FOSS! If Lightworks offered that, I’d feel a lot more compelled to stay with it.

  • I haven’t tried to use Blender as a video editor yet, because it seems so unintuitive. I’ve stuck with Lightworks because I love the trimming controls. For video stabilization, you may want to check out Natron (http://natron.fr/). Also I think blender can do it as well, but I haven’t tried it.

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