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FOSS Multimedia Toolkit

For many years I have used GNU/Linux computers as my main/sole computers. I mostly stay in the Debian/Ubuntu line of distros because they are well documented and well supported. Lately I have been using Pop!_OS on a lot of my computers. I started using Linux because I was aligned with the freedom message and it was the best platform for software development, especially if your software was going to run on a Linux server. For a while now, though, it’s been a great general purpose desktop platform that’s easy to maintain and trouble shoot, especially as a lot of “work” has migrated to web-based platforms (Chrome runs fine on Linux, if you’re wondering).

As I’m teaching the 2023 Multimedia Studio on Generative AI, I’ve decided to put together this list of tools that I use for multimedia production. I’m not a professional multimedia producer – I’m a profession researcher of how people learn from multimedia and other software systems. So, I don’t warrant that this is the best or definitive list by any means.


Screenshots

Of all of the tools and techniques on this list, I put making screenshots at the top. Like most people, I use screenshots daily – from my phone and computer(s). A lot of the other multimedia here begins with a screenshot. If you can help it at all, please don’t send me photos of your computer screen. Take a screen shot!

Since Mozilla added screenshots to Firefox, I use Firefox for most of my screenshot taking. It’s quick, copies to the clipboard, and automatically clips to the underlying HTML elements. If I need a shot outside of Firefox, I use Flameshot which has most of the features you want (delays, annotations, etc).

Peek enables quick screen recordings that you can save (among other formats) as animated GIFs. I use Peek when I want to show something that requires short, simple steps (like a menu option).

Occasionally, there has been a task where I want to automate screenshots. For this, I write a simple bash or python script that uses the command line tool, scrot.


Editing Photos

GIMP is the FOSS image editor, an alternative to Photoshop. This is a go-to application for me and always finds a spot on my launcher. I mostly use it to scale and crop photos, add transparency to images, or crop thumbnails into a circle. If I care about a photo (I’m going to print it or put it up online or use it in a presentation), I will do post processing and color correction in GIMP. I’ll also use it to remove something from an image, “shop” someone into a photo, etc. I only recently learned about how awesome the stamping tool can be.

When I need to automate or batch image manipulation, Image Magick is usually where I turn first. Released in 1987, it’s been available on every linux machine I’ve ever used. I would probably be better served by becoming more expert in Python image processing, so maybe I’ll chart my progress learning more in a separate post.

Screen Recording

It’s fair to say that I teach computer programming online via screen recordings, and for the past several years I have relied on OBS: Open Broadcaster Studio. OBS is full featured, allowing me to easily switch scenes between a full screen recording, a “talking head” recording from my webcam, or a picture-in-picture with me in the corner (at various sizes and various corners). The dual-monitor support makes it particularly nice to use. Less important for me, but essential for others, it supports live streaming. Its configuration seems a little tricky at first, but it’s worth the effort.


Video Editing

For other people, video editing might be first on the list. I don’t happen to incorporate a lot of live action in my multimedia teaching. If I were teaching cooking or microelectronics, my workflow would be very different and my first tool would be the video editor. Still, every multimedia author needs to have a solid grasp of a good video editor. For me, this has been an area where the FOSS ecosystem falls short. I have tried pretty much every FOSS editor and have spent particular time with OpenShot, Flowblade, and Kdenlive. Of these, I have had the most success with OpenShot, however in my experience these editors have been unstable and/or missing key features such as precise editing while being able to see audio waves. For the past couple of years, I have settled on the non-free DaVinci Resolve. The free beer version has been stable and has all of the features that I need.

While sometimes I can do a short OBS screen cast in one shot and post it directly, I usually post process a video in a video editor. At the very least, I like to take out dead space, add and add a title at the start. If it’s “important” I will:

  • edit together several short screen recordings

  • reduce dead space, add transitions, and/or speed up the video in segments where I’m typing and not speaking (if you’re typing a lot of code or demonstrating some other aspect of software, remember to keep quiet so that you can edit it later)

  • separate the audio and do noise reduction in Audacity

  • add sound/music to signal transitions and focus attention

  • add titles and text annotations

  • add still images (sometimes with labels) that I will discuss

  • mix in other videos (and add narration or text/image glosses)

Vector Graphics

Vector graphics are small and scale without any loss. They are great for creating illustrations and working with text. If you need to, you can also mix in raster graphics (e.g. photos). I use vector drawing programs to create diagrams, info graphics, or for any work that requires a lot of text and images (because working with text in GIMP isn’t great).

Inkscape is the FOSS alternative to Adobe Illustrator and like GIMP, it’s a very full featured, stable program. Recently, I have been using it a lot to “trace” aspects of images to create a hand drawn effect. Everyone should know the basics of drawing with curves, putting text on a path, and working with gradients (this also goes for your image editor).

If my document requires paragraphs of text or is more of a flow diagram than an illustration, I will do the text in LibreOffice Draw (or for flow diagrams, the entire drawing in LibreOffice).


Audio Editing

Making a podcast? Can’t stop saying “um”? Have a fan in the background? Want to mix some beats together? Of all of the software on this list, Audacity is the one that I think is better for most people than any paid, proprietary competitor. I use Audacity directly to record audio if I don’t need video, to quickly transcode an audio file (e.g .wav to .mp3), for the great noise reduction filter, and to equalize different audio tracks. Install Audacity – it’s easy to learn and invaluable once you are accustomed to it.


Where’s Blender?

Blender is a heavy hitter in the FOSS multimedia world. Unfortunately, my Blender skills are negligible, so it’s not very useful to me. Blender lets you create 3D models, animations, VFX, motion graphics, etc. I would like to learn it to, at least, make simple 2D animations. Maybe next year.



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