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.
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.