Post Production

Hitfilm Express goes “Pay What You Want”

Or don’t pay anything, the editing program is still free.

UK-based FXHome, makers of Hitfilm Express (the free version of Hitfilm Pro) recently announced that they’re launching a “Pay What You Want” program where you can, get this, pay what you want (if you want). Part of this program is that FXHome will donate 10-20% of that purchase, currently being sent to the WWF and Australia Emergency Bushfire Fund, and each month a new charity will be the recipient. To date, they’ve raised £10,000.

I had really only heard of Hitfilm Express in the context of answers online when someone asks “what’s a good free software I can edit with?” but come to find out it’s the successor to a program I used a while back in 2008 or so-called EffectsLab Pro, which was (as it sounds) an visual effects program. Now after however-many years of progress, Hitfilm has traditional NLE capabilities and has proven to be an excellent intro into the world of post-production. I had this long nagging suspicion I had heard the name FXHome before and when writing this article it hit me. Unfortunately, I misremembered it as a different program so in the following interview… We didn’t talk about that! That’s my bad. At that point in my life I was filming everything on a High-8 Handycam (later an XL2, which I still have) and absolutely using the opportunity to make Star Wars shorts in the fields with my friends. Everyone was making Matrix videos too. Good times…

In any case, I was offered an opportunity to talk to Kirstie Tostevin of FXHome about the program and see what’s new (even though at the time I literally thought I was learning about a new program) which you can read below. It’s been edited for clarity.

How important is the community to the development of Hitfilm? It seems like you are pretty communicative.

We’re amazed by them every day. It’s the thing that the company was built on. When the first piece of software came out the internet wasn’t really a thing, YouTube wasn’t a thing, so Josh and the other guys here at the start managed to set up an internal forum for filmmakers to come and chat about what they were working on, what they thought of films. It was only like 60-odd people but they were on the forum every day and everyone became good friends. But since then we’ve got 4.8 million users so the way we interact with them is slightly different [laughs].

I’m amazed every day with the way people interact with us as a company, and how much they support what we do. We’ve got a YouTube channel that we put out educational tutorials on, and I’m still amazed at how nice our community is in the comments because YouTube isn’t well known for having lovely comment sections. So the fact that everybody is so sweet to each other in the comments is amazing.

Our forum is sort of burgeoning with people, and yet still we have a lot of people who are very excited every day to learn about what we’re doing. They share their wisdom, they share their generosity -filmmakers generally are very generous with their skills and what they know, they love to collaborate- they’ve helped in some very specific ways over the years–

We had a Kickstarter in about 2011, which was to get HitFilm on to the Mac. So we ended up raising -I believe it was- £50,000 which at the time was insane, and that allowed us to develop the Mac version of HitFilm.

And then obviously with the new Pay What You Want that we’ve got going on at the moment, we’ve been blown away again by the support that we’ve been shown by the community who doesn’t have to pay for the software; it’s still completely free. By doing so they allow us to continue to develop this software for people who can’t afford it at all. And they get to contribute in a bigger, more positive way because we give a percentage of the donations to good causes.

We are still amazed by how positively it’s been received by the community because, there’s always a risk with these kinds of things, you know? We’re the first to do it in this industry, and it could have gone terribly wrong [laughs] but we’ve raised about £10,000 so far, which is fantastic. We’ve only really only had good feedback, which has been brilliant.

Even the $19 “second-tier” option gets you color-correction features and denoising which are pretty big features for a free program.

We wanted to create a tier for everybody, so we know that we have a lot of people who are just literally getting started but want to make sure that they have the basics that are required to make a specific kind of video. The thing is, Hitfilm Express is incredibly powerful. It’s got probably 85% of the feature set of Hitfilm Pro. You can use it to do pretty much anything. But, if you wanted to have a little bit of a starter pack so that you can play around with some cool transitions if you wanted to do our content creator tier and create some specific YouTube-style content, or you wanted to really go ahead and get your toes dipped into the world of VFX you can get the VFX Artists tier. We decided to do that by, kind of, demographics because we know that’s how people like to use the software. It seems to have worked really well!

We do regular surveys, so we have a really good engagement level on those which allows us to develop the software in the way we know the users want it to be developed, and give them the odd cool thing like After Effects plugins when they ask for it.

As well as our community kind of inspiring each other, and inspiring us to make better software, they have a soft spot for our original FXHome OG community members, Film Riot, Corridor Digital… We had Corridor Digital on our forums when they were like 14 or 15 when they were starting out, chatting with Josh our CEO pretty much every day.

Oh yeah, there is a like, very specific group of filmmakers who came up during that time.

We’ve still got a really cool video of them when they were very young doing their first “Star Wars” film. The community kind of helps [young filmmakers] grow and helps them with contacts and to hone their skills. We’re hoping to do something with them soon revolving around that community stuff.

With Film Riot we reached out to them a while ago, and they’ve always been very good friends of ours. I’ll always remember the quote that Ryan gave because it was one of the nicest we had as we were still a small company, he called HitFilm “a Love letter to the filmmaking community” which was very sweet. We knew people were really struggling to create what they wanted to create with the tools that were available because they were so inaccessible price-wise, and anything that was free was virtually unusable, so we kind of did release Express as a love letter to everybody who wanted to create cool content.

As the program was built from responding to the needs of solo filmmakers as they were experiencing them, as opposed to being built for bigger budget concerns, is that the target audience?

We’re a bit different from the other software companies because we’ve been very successful in reaching aspiring content creators. We used to say that we wanted to be the place that people start their journey. We’ve always been really open about people using other pieces of software. If you’re a filmmaker you’re generally going to have multiple things you do in your workflow, different software that you use. We created the Ignite plugins that can be used in other host software, we really didn’t want to restrict anybody. I think for that reason we brought on a lot of people that are just looking for a fairly simple but really powerful editor and compositor, just to get started and see what’s out there. We don’t imagine that people are going to stick with HitFilm throughout their career, we know people are going to go on to the industry standards like Adobe and Nuke, depending on if they get to a VFX studio they’ll be using all kinds of software. We just want to give them somewhere to start.

Even though we’ve managed very neatly to appeal to that group of users, we have also started recently to catch the attention of people in the more “prosumer-sphere”. The pros are kind of starting to see us as a viable alternative to some of the other software out there. We have never set out to be an “alternative”, but people are starting to put that label on us. I would say the majority of our users, specifically with Express, are very much newbies, the next generation of creators.

That’s likely an advantage, right? Not having to worry, necessarily, about working out “group projects” or “DCP output”, you can focus on what younger creators tend to run into more.

The main thing we’ve noticed is that younger creators tend to want to do it all themselves. Probably because they want to have creative control at the beginning, but also because they might not have anybody else who’s willing to work on the project with them. The majority of our users (even though we’re a British company) are in the US. We have a lot of people contacting us like “I’m in a small town, I don’t know anybody else that wants to get into filmmaking, what do I do?”

What they end up doing is using HitFilm, because it gives them the editing tools, the VFX tools, the ability to import 3D models, they get all of the educational tutorials on our YouTube channel, and really all they have to do is find actors. In my opinion, that’s the difference between a younger creator and someone who’s been doing it for a while and is in the professional realm. It’s more of a collaborative project when you get to that point.

Do you feel like they have a preference in toolsets? I notice nowadays a lot of questions are based around achieving transitions and effects, and I feel like that probably does have something to do with not having any help needing to spice up what you’ve got.

We try to get people to show us their work so we can get an idea of what they’re making, but the surveys have basically told us that people want NLEs that they can trust and that reminds them of the industry-standard tools because if they are going to do this as more of a hobby, then they’re going to want to progress on to something else that is similar, but they also just want the ability to make really cool visual effects to impress the people around them and show that they mean business.

When we do create content, even if we’re using the free version of the software, we try to make it as aspirational as we can. We focus on quality. Some of the effects which can be more difficult but look really cool, and as long as somebody’s willing to sit with us for a 10-minute tutorial we’ll show you how to create every step of that.

When it comes to people’s tool kit, the main feedback that we’ve gotten is that it’s all in one. Because they don’t want to know which is the best software for every step, they want to do it all in one and once they get further down the line, they get their first paid project or their going to university to study film or VFX, then they start bringing in the other tool kits and learning those because that’s what inherently exists in studios.

Swinging back around to the Pay What You Want thing, how did that come about?

Funnily enough, late last year we did a Humble Bundle. We’ve always wanted, as a company, to do something bigger than HitFilm. We’ve always wanted to give back to the world in a bigger way, and we’ve also wanted to give our community a better way to feel like they are supporting us even if they’re at a lower level to financially assist. I know it sounds like I’m lying through my teeth but we have honestly had people on our forms go “Look, I can’t afford HitFilm Pro but I really like what you guys do, do you have something cheap I can get and support development?” and we brought in add-on packs for that reason, to give people different options. With Pay What You Want, we really wanted to have that good cause element added to it. Humble Bundle is fantastic at doing that with the gaming industry, but it’s branching out into software a little bit and that’s where we got involved.

After doing Humble Bundle we realized how much we had helped raise for their good cause and decided we wanted to do that ourselves. We’ve always been thinking about Pay What You Want system but it’s a risk, you know? We really wanted to focus on “You get some free goodies if you decide to support the software we donate up to 20% of your purchase to good causes, and most importantly it’s free if you want it.”

It does sound like a reflection of the sort of company that you’ve built. As a community, there’s comradery, you look to support one another, support bigger causes…

One of our internal missions, when we think about why we created the company, was that we wanted people to make cool stuff. Prior to a couple years ago, everything was totally inaccessible financially and you really got a raw deal when it came to the number of features that you had in any one piece of cheap software, and now we’re allowing people to make stuff with completely free software. But also, in order to continue to develop that free software we’re opening out to the community to help us and to support. In order for us to continue to make software that allows people to make something cool, we decided to try something new. It’s not been done by anybody else before, I’m sure it may be picked up by some people going forward, but I think it’s the reason we’ve gotten such a positive reaction so far is just a credit to the wonderful people that we have as part of this community. Talented filmmakers and people who really care about the next generation who are coming up and need something good to work with.

Obviously going with the WWF Australian Bush Fire Fund is currently a great move, are the charities going to change over time?

Yes, we’re going to be changing the good causes every month. Because we released this in the middle of December we didn’t want to do it a disservice, so the Australian Bush Fire Fund is going to be going till the 1st of March, and then we’ll transition to another good cause, and those will change every month. We’re also going to be asking for our user’s feedback on the kind of good causes they would like us to support. 

We’re looking at the moment about a third party piece of software that will sort of bolster our forum, which will allow people to much more easily tell us which feature they would like to see in the software going forward and then users can vote that up and down. We already have something like that, which works but it’s not optimal, so we’re going to be hopefully doing that over the next couple months, and we’ll be putting the good cause element in there people can make suggestions and people can vote that up or down.

So, what overall course does this put you all on? *What’s your 5-year plan!?*

[laughs] We’ve changed so much in the last two years already in terms of things that we wanted to do and things we’ve wanted to achieve. It is very difficult to look forward or guess what the video industry is going to be doing in two years’ time.

That makes sense, you guys seem to be pretty reactive development-wise.

We try to be as reactive as we can, but from our point of view, this year is the year of the community. We’re going to be doubling down on making everybody feel as cared for and accepted and supported in every facet of what we do and also trying to kind of support our users work through more sponsorships etc. We’ve got some really big partners on board at the moment. We’ve created Vegas Effects/Vegas Image as part of Vegas Post from Magix, so we’ve got some really big people behind us now. It’s really exciting to think about the kinds of ways that we can expand on software and make it exactly what people need going forward. Who knows, YouTube might not be here in two years [laughs]. TikTok might have taken over the world!


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Kenny McMillan is the founder and director of OWL BOT Digital Cinema located in West LA. His work spans the Internet from Vimeo to YouTube netting dozens of views. He previously worked as an events…