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HitFilm 3 Express: The Lightroom of NLEs

Affordable Non Linear Editors for video are some of the most attractive pieces of software indie cinematographers like to explore. Some are even FREE, as HitFilm 3 Express, which is a bit like working with Lightroom… for video.

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Being new to video, as I am essentially a photographer (and a journalist) who wants to explore the new option in his DSLR, I must admit I fell in love with HitFilm3 Express when I opened and tried it: everything seems to be in the right place. And it is FREE.

Well, let’s say that this “free” is, partially, a marketing trick. Yes, it is free, but it is conceived to make you want to have either the HitFilm 3 Pro or buy the multiple expansion packages available to make the free version a more versatile tool. Nothing wrong with that, though. This is not a new technique, the old “giving away the razor, selling the blades” principle works here. Gillette did it giving razors away and expecting people to become faithful and regular buyers of their blades… and that’s where the saying comes from.

I truly believe this old-fashioned marketing gimmick will work here. Why? Because when I first looked at the add on packets, after installing the editor, I felt compelled to buy some, because the prices are SO accessible and I don’t need to buy them all, just those I need. Some of the packets cost $9.99! The Starter Pack, for example. It offers you with a hand-picked selection of color grading, titling, motion graphics and compositing effects. Or the Premium Formats pack, which enables support for the Dolby AC3/AVCHD and MPEG-2 video formats. Or the Audio-visual pack, to generate incredible, audio-powered spectrum and waveform patterns.

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For $24,99 you can have a Colorist pack, to give your videos the professional look they deserve with advanced grading tools and support for cinematic LUT files. And you even can have a pack like the Sci-fi adventure pack, including semi-automated lightswords, 3D laser blasts and 100% authentic opening title crawl. May the Force be with you…

The list of packs extends further, but if you need them all you’re probably better off starting with the HitFilm3 Pro version. If you’re like me and want to start slowly, then the FREE version is your thing. And yes, the 3 Express isn’t a new version of 2 Express. It is not even, the creators say, a “lite” version of 3 Pro. It was conceived to offer filmmakers a choice – they can use the powerful free editor & compositor, they can purchase individual packs if they require specific additions for projects, or they can grab 3 Pro and get all of them and more. Hope that makes sense! 

If you need unlimited power, the HitFilm 3 Pro, for $299,99 is your thing, It includes Integrated editing & 3D compositing, 157 effects and presets, 14 premium effects packs, 12 exclusive effects, 130 plugins for Vegas Pro, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X, DaVinci Resolve, After Effects and Motion, Professional chroma key and denoiser, 16-bit rendering, 4K, OpenEXR export and OpenFX plugins. The free version includes Integrated editing & 3D compositing and 157 effects and presets. It does sound as little, but in the right hands the HitFilm3 Express can do wonders.

One good example of what can be achieved comes from Ryan Connolly, from Film Riot fame, who launched a new film, Portal Combat simultaneously with the presentation of HitFilm 3 Express. The author’s new film was made with Express (and a little help from features on other packs). Watch the film and you’ll be in “I want to do something like that” mood in no time. I know I did. Or better, I felt the urge to grab some video files and just try the program. It took me a whole afternoon and some long hours after dinner to get something together, and my little film does not compare with Portal Combat, but was enough for me to understand that I love the interface in this NLE, and want to explore it further.

I played with many of the filters, the special effects, and a lot of things I could but would not use on my film, but the experience revealed me that HitFilm 3 Express works a bit like Lightroom: it’s very easy to drag a filter of a desired effect, adjust parameters, see what it does, and decide to keep it or simply delete it. I admit I only touched the surface of the program, but having tried other NLEs before, I loved the simplicity of the whole process. I do know my way around a bit these days, but the interface on some of the NLEs I’ve tried before just make me feel lost, while here it was easy to get things running, even without looking at the help files.

I picked some original files I created last year and decided to build a story, as an example of how people can do a better exercise of capturing the mood of a place. The sound in the final movie is the sound of the original files – lots of wind and noise, captured by the camera microphone, due to the windy Winter days I did the capture – and I didn’t do any editing of the sound as I did not find tools in the program. I am not sure if the Pro version offers some, but an external editor can be an option, or having ways to capture sound to an external device and insert the audio in the editor afterwards.

What amazed me most, besides the special effects and filters available, were the results of the editor in terms of control of exposure and colour. Remember that this version does not have color correction wheels to easily fine tune the highlights, midtones and shadows , something you get with the Starter pack. Still, I managed to get my flat video files back to what I saw and even beyond, according to my needs. The fact that the interface for this is very Lightroom-like, helps. And it makes me want to do more things, just because the program is there. I am not sure if I will buy more packages right now; I think it will be a case of trying to bite more than I can chew, but this NLE really made me jump and want to go out and do things.

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I need to go through the manuals and look at the videos online to better understand some of the features – there is always so much to learn — but this first effort was a “no instructions reading” experience, suggesting that if I can do it, you can too. Once I get familiar with some of the features, I believe I can do a better job, but even a tool as simple as this has a learning curve. The results can be amazing and in many cases are only limited by your imagination.

In fact, as the authors say, HitFilm 3 Express is for everybody. “It’s for students who are working three jobs just to pay the bills. It’s for people who have never made a film but would love to give it a try. It’s for the mums and dads creating family memories who don’t want to be stuck with the Free Movie Maker that came with their computer or camera. It’s for kids who don’t yet have a credit card.”

Express is also a link back to the creators roots. In 2001 they released their first product, AlamDV, and people loved it even though it was pretty basic. HitFilm 3 Express isn’t basic but it is made for those same people – anyone who goes to see a movie at the cinema, gets inspired, then heads out with a camera and a mission to make something cool.

We live in a time where people capture and share not only photographs but also video. Photographs are already edited, many times, but video, even for Facebook or YouTube, also deserves to be edited, and that’s where a tool like HitFilm 3 Express comes in. It gives everybody access to tools that not only allow to edit video files to build a story, but also go beyond what a classical NLE offers. HitFilm 3 Express is a free video editor and visual effects compositor. Meaning it already has inside – look at Portal Combat – many special effects that seem to be adequate for a generation that uses a visual vocabulary where many of those effects play an important role. With HitFilm 3 Express anyone can follow their imagination, knowing that besides the essential tools, this NLE already offers some of those crazy effects.

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For a new generation of indie cinematographers – or older ones willing to explore new content – HitFilm 3 Express may well be the starting point, an exploring platform leading them to the complete version. The creators of the program say that they’ve “had enough of new and young filmmakers having to choose between cheap and nasty or expensive and good” software. HitFilm 3 Pro is our answer for people who know what they want to make. Indie filmmakers, freelance VFX and mograph artists and professionals looking to expand their plugin toolkit. You know who you are, and you know why you use HitFilm 3 Pro.”

The journey in that direction may well start, as I wrote above, with HitFilm 3 Express, which is available for Windows and Mac, meaning everybody can try it. I am amazed at the results I achieved and I know things can only get better when I get my sound files right and devote some time to really understand all the features in the FREE version of the program. Now, let me see what else I can do with the Starter pack… Maybe I should buy it after all!


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Journalist, writer and photographer since 1979, both print and online, with a vast experience in the fields of photography, software, hardware, web, aviation, History, video games, technology, having published content in almost all Portuguese newspapers…

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