Novacut: Not just vaporware.

Posted: 2011-07-25

I am not here to be a cynic and say that Novacut's funding efforts will fail (again). I am writing to say that the only way for the ideas behind Novacut to be realized is to stop pretending that throwing $25K worth of funding at it could possibly save the project. Over the past year, Novacut has put almost all effort into soliciting money. In the amount of time it would've taken to implement these features in existing software, Novacut has mainly been producing advertisements for itself.

What Novacut is doing is harmful to free software, especially existing video editors. While the broader goals of the Novacut project, like decentralized collaboration, are admirable and deserve support, the project's current course will only serve to further splinter an area of free software that has already suffered enough from people thinking they can make something better from scratch.

Graph illustrating the current state of free software video editors. 

I don't like writing about this, especially knowing how much an individual has poured into this effort, but it needs to be said. I don't think that Novacut should disappear, but its current path needs serious reevaluation.
Kickstarter is a very cool platform for funding all sorts of great projects. The problem is that sometimes, maybe even often, successful funding depends on making high quality videos to advertise the project, rather than the actual ability to complete the project. Even if we let that slide, is Novacut a worthwhile project? When all existing free software projects for some purpose (like video editing) are fundamentally flawed in some way, unable to incoporate a major innovation, or simply has an unwelcoming community, then starting a new project or forking an existing one may be necessary. This is not one of those times.
Jason Gerard DeRose, the one-man show behind Novacut, wants to reinvent the wheel and the axel, build a self-powered vehicle on them, open up a mobile ice cream shop, and have you fund it for him. Don't get me wrong, Jason has some cool ideas, but the project as it exists (or is envisioned to exist) today, is doomed to failure. A list of things you wish your video editor would do is not deserving of $25K worth of funding. Novacut displays an impressive combination of setting ridiculous goals, being unwilling to collaborate with existing projects, and deceptively marketing toward artists that are not intimately familiar with the ecosystem of free software video editing.
If Novacut gets the funding Jason is asking for, the money wasted isn't even the biggest issue. Novacut is distracting from worthwhile projects and promoting a development model that doesn't work, building a bad reputation for projects that really do deserve support.
Novacut is all talk and marketing and no code. All there is to show are some simple HTML5+JavaScript video demos: a video player/scrubber does not make a desktop video editor. Spending so much time on identity and branding, and having no code beyond the tiny demos to show for it, is becoming a trend that needs to be stopped.

What even is the Novacut project? Let's try not to feel too uncomfortable while we go through their awkward buzzword-inflated infomercial-style videos.
In their first Kickstarter video, they talk about a few ideas. Jason describes his vision to create video project "source code" to let you see all the files and editing done to produce a final cut. This is commonly known as the combination of the input media files and the project or save files from the video editing tools used. Nothing magical about it. You can't create a video editor without "video source code". Every video editor has this. It's simply up to the people doing the work whether they actually share their source files. Jason describes it as if this "source code" would also be contained in the actual video file you watch, but personally, I don't want to download 50GB of source files just to watch an episode of a show.
Next, he talks about a distributed workflow. This seems to be the only "unique" idea behind Novacut, and it's a good one, but we'll get into that later. This will be powered by a piece of software Novacut is writing called dmedia, the Distributed Media Library. The demo of Novacut's reimagining of the classic video timeline, equivalent to Final Cut's storyboard mode, is rather elegant, but there is not even a mockup to illustrate how collaborative editing will look, or even any aspect of editing other than this "slice and sequence" prototype.
He closes with a brief remark mentioning a "better business model" for artists, without describing what that entails. Next, Tara Oldfield appears to discuss creating a community of "teachers and learners" again, without giving out any details, but that would require some sort of web distribution platform. Oh yes! In this interview with OMG! Ubuntu!, Jason describes the plan for monetizing Novacut:
"After the initial editor development, we'll be building an online marketplace though which artists can distribute their work to their fans, and through which fans can support the artists they love. 
Our business model is for artists to make money, and when they do, we take a cut to cover the costs of the infrastructure we provide. As we won't require exclusivity and artists will retain ownership of their work, artists will always be free to seek other venues. This puts good pressure on us to truly take care of artists, to constantly earn their business. The marketplace will allow us to fund the video editor's long-term development."

So Novacut will be tied to this online marketplace? This is turning into a rather large project. Still, the idea of an online marketplace to fund the development of a free software video editor isn't a bad idea, and it is especially nice that all videos will be required to use a copyleft license approved for free cultural works. But what about that distributed workflow? In the video for their current Kickstarter campagn, 100 tickets for their "Novacut cloud" are advertised for anyone who gives them $300 or more. So wait, even the video editing will be tied to a web service? I'm willing to bet hosting all those source files won't be cheap.
So, the Novacut project aims to build an unilateral, top to bottom, storyboarding, script writing, video editing, and distribution platform consisting of three major components: the collaboration-enabled editor itself, the community platform for distributed production, and the distribution venue. Let's ignore the last two, since the video editor itself needs to exist before those can even begin.

What has the Novacut video editor promised us? Video source code and distributed/decentralized workflows. Again, this is something every video with a "save" button already has. Novacut's solution to this seems to be storing or at least tracking all resources remotely, allowing multiple people to make changes, and then resynchronizing the changes. Not only is that not actually real-time collaboration, but this sounds like a whole mess of added complexity to both the user interface and the video "source code". Somehow, after writing yet another video editor from scratch, they will also be able to build complicated functionality to support their cloud service, a service that is not truly decentralized as you will have to host it yourself, or likely pay someone to host it for you. Jason has admitted that he has no idea how the user interface will look to support this. There are no mockups or even informal descriptions of how it could look, only a mishmash of feature ideas he wants Novacut to have and how he wants it to be perfect.
Even if they get funded, where would the money go? What can you do for 25K a year? You can barely feed one person in the USA. Developers are typically paid $90K per year. So, you manage to feed 1 person for a year, and then what, another fundraiser every few months? This is precisely why the trend of putting all efforts into Kickstarter funding needs to end. It's sad how desperate they've become, and no free software contributor should go through this:
"We've thrown ourselves into Novacut completely, and in the process have maxed out all our credit cards, burned through every drop of savings, and borrowed basically all the money we can." 
"We're desperate. We were about a week from having to pull the plug on Novacut when FCPX was released, so we thought we'd try one last ditch effort. The sacrifices we've made to work full time on Novacut the last year... have left our lives in shambles."

In public discussions on IRC channels, Jason has repeatedly refused to build upon existing video editors for a series of wishy-washy reasons along the lines of 'I don't want to be hampered in design', when he doesn't even have concrete design plans, nevermind actual mockups, and he never even attempted to work with other projects, dismissing them as projects that would not be interested in such revolutionary changes. Yet, for one thing, PiTiVi already shares the same goals as Novacut (collaborative editing has been an idea they've been interested in for a while), and a few years ago someone already started a patch that enabled realtime collaboration. There are also plans to create a storyboard mode like in the demo. Jason has failed to provide one good reason for needing to create a separate project.
In all of Novacut's videos, the project is described as if it is the first free software video editor ever, and as if it already exists. In the most recent video, they again utter all the abstract things Novacut hopes to be, and they actually say, "This thing exists". It doesn't. In a beautiful fusion of hipness and cheesy advertising speak, this entertaining infomercial goes over all of the ideas Novacut has, as if throwing money at it will suddently make them come true: automatically syncing audio, switching clips between speakers, regular backups, checking file integrity, distributed libraries of tagged media, etc. Yet, in their own words, Novacut should be adding these on to existing projects! Pros and cons? Pros: "It's open source, so any functionality that doesn't exist right now can easily be implemented in the future by the fact that any programmer can come along and...and add that functionality." Cons: "It doesn't exist yet".
So, what should Novacut do?
Simple: narrow their focus.
For the video editor, Jason needs to just swallow his pride and join forces with PiTiVi, as he has been invited to again and again. It uses the same powerful backends that Novacut planned to use, but real-time collaborative editing is something that could could actually be implemented soon. PiTiVi has just implemented audio sync and multi-camera alignment, and surely the rest of Jason's revolutionary ideas can be implemented as well. Novacut's main purpose could shift from creating a new video editor, straight to building the web platform for sharing source files and distributing final projects to their audiences.
Novacut has been gaining momentum, and that should not go to waste. There are some good ideas that really deserve fruition, but unless Jason can get over the need to build his own fantastical media sharing and editing megaplatform, he won't be contributing to the advancement of free software video editing.