Cooking with Linux : Lights . . . Camera . . . Action!

By Marcel Gagné

This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Linux Journal

Lights . . . Camera . . . Action!
Images have been scaled down. Click each one to see the full sized version.

I’m afraid it’s true, François. The camera does not lie. That’s what you look like when you are serving wine. Of course, mon amis. I have no intention of putting this little video on our restaurant’s website. Why am I doing this? Ah, you have not yet looked at the feature for today’s menu. Multimedia and Entertainment is the ticket, mon ami, and you have to admit, this little video is certainly entertaining. Don’t be upset, François, I have the ultimate respect for you. Besides, there’s no time to fret, our guests will be here any moment. Ah, you see, they are already at the door.

Welcome, mes amis to Chez Marcel! It’s wonderful to see you all today here in the finest Linux restaurant on the planet which just happens to be the home of one of the greatest wine cellars in the world. Please sit and make yourselves comfortable. François was just heading to the wine cellar now. The 2001 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir is drinking very nicely. It’s a very showy wine bursting with hints of stardom, perfect for today’s menu.

As you will notice, each workstation today is equipped with a small web cam and a microphone. That’s in honor of this issue’s theme, entertainment and multimedia. The immediate idea is that we (or someone else) will wind up as the star of our little movie, but sometimes the software itself is the star. After all, many an application has shone on Chez Marcel’s menu, non? But the marquis of this menu item isn’t a movie and that’s where Karl Beckers’ xvidcap comes into play. This is a great little tool for recording the action on your X window desktop using a program called ffmpeg (very likely already on your system — the source package does include ffmpeg, so you won’t need to go looking for it if you follow that route). The result is an MPEG movie of your entire desktop or any portion thereof.

Excellent, François, you have returned. Please, pour for our guests . . . and stop looking so self-conscious.

Why would you do such a thing, you might ask? Well, you can use this to create a training video to show others how to use the application or to show the world how good you are at playing your favorite first person shooter. To get your copy of xvidcap, head on over to the official website at this friendly URL.

The site offers both source and some binary packages such as RPM or DEB. Should your particular distribution not be covered, building xvidcap from source is a simple extract and build five-step.

tar -xzvf xvidcap-1.1.3.tar.gz
cd xvidcap-1.1.3
su -c "make install"

The program name is either xvidcap or gvidcap. I say either because if you have the GTK2+ development libraries (version 2.2.1 or later), you will get a second binary. Both work the same but, quite honestly, the GTK2 interface looks and works nicer. If you don’t have a recent GTK2+, you may still be able to get the interface by using one of the binary packages as opposed to source.

When you start either version of the program from the command line, you get a simple tool bar with a few buttons and a red rectangle floating below it. This is the capture window and you can move it to cover whatever area you want to record. The default window, however, is fairly small. To change the area you want to record, click the crosshairs icon (second from the right on the tool bar), then click and drag the pointer to take in whatever area you with to include in your capture. The red rectangle will be resized. The buttons to record, stop, pause, and so on. Pausing over the buttons will display tool tips. That’s it, you are recording a movie of whatever transpires inside the red rectangle (figure 1).

[ Figure 1 “Selecting an capture window with xvidcap/gvidcap” ]

There are also some preference settings that let you change the number of frames per second, the video codec (MPEG, MPEG4, MS_DIV2, etc), as well as whether you want to capture the mouse pointer in the final video. Right-click on the frame button (first on the left) and select Preferences (figure 2). After you’ve experimented for a while, man xvidcap to get the details on running the program without the GUI. The added bonus is that you can capture audio as well, perfect if you are creating an instructional video.

[ Figure 2, “The gvidcap Preferences dialogue.” ]

One of the reasons I made a point of mentioning ffmpeg when talking about xvidcap is that it is an amazingly versatile little program and well worth getting to know. You can use ffmpeg to create your own movies with next to no expense. A cheap web cam and, assuming you want sound, a equally cheap microphone are all you need. That, and ffmpeg, of course.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to create an introductory video for a book project. The quality wasn’t expected to be exciting since this was mostly a “proof of concept” thing and not meant to be the final product (whatever and whenever that might be). Since I did not have a proper video camera, I had to improvise and thereby created what might very well be the world’s cheapest video recording studio (figure 3). My setup was a cheap microphone, an equally cheap USB web cam (with a CPIA chip). Armed with my Linux system, I figured I was ready to go. The only question was “How?”

[ Figure 3, “Is this the world’s cheapest video recording studio?” ]

Using ffmpeg, I created my video clip, experimented with timing, frame rate, and so on, until I had something that was getting pretty good. With the following command, I created an AVI format video clip at 10 frames per second.

ffmpeg -vd /dev/video -ad /dev/sound/dsp -r 10 -s 352x288 video_test.avi

That’s it. My video device input (indicated by the -vd flag) is /dev/video and my sound, or audio, input was /dev/sound/dsp. That’s the -ad flag. Your own devices may be a little different of course. For instance, on another of my machines, the USB video device is /dev/video0. As it stands, the command will continue to record pretty much until forever or until you run out of disk space. So, to limit a recording to 10 seconds, I use the “-t” flag. Like so:

ffmpeg -vd /dev/video -ad /dev/sound/dsp -r 10 -s 352x288 -t 10 video_test.avi

The resulting clip, which I called video_test.avi, can them be played with Xine, Kmplayer, mplayer, or whatever video player you prefer. Well, mes amis, my foray into video production on the cheap was a success, or so I thought. When I sent the video clip for approval, I was asked whether they could have it in MPG format instead. Rather than redoing what was obviously a great work of cinematography, I converted it using the following command.

ffmpeg -i video_test.avi video_test.mpg

As versatile as ffmpeg is, you should certainly spend a few minutes looking at the man page. I promise you’ll discover lots of really cool uses for it.

Before we move on to the pièce de résistance, I can see from a quick pan of your wine glasses that many of you need a refill. François, if you would be so kind.

For those of you who already own a digital video camera, recording high-quality video is not a problem. The challenge is to get the video on your hard disk for editing, compressing, and eventually burning to disk or sending to friends and family. I have a Sony Handycam. It comes with a USB port but it also has a much faster means of getting the video transferred via a high performance serial bus or, as most people know it, a FireWire port. The real techies out there refer to it as an IEEE1394 port. Your computer also needs to have such a port (or card) in order to transfer the information, but the performance of the IEEE1394 port is truly worth the investment.

To actually manipulate the resulting video in a friendly way, however, you need to get your hands on a video editor like Arne Schirmacher’s Kino (available at The dvgrab program, also available from the Kino website, is built in to Kino so you don’t need a separate copy. You see, mes amis, like xvidcap, Kino uses a few command line tools under the pretty interface. Another one of those tools is our old friend ffmpeg.

These days, Arne has some great developers working on the project and they have put together a rather nice and easy to use video editor for Linux. The beauty of Kino is that you can use it to extract and edit video directly from your IEEE1394 compatible video camera. If you have such a device which can be connected via a FireWire cable, Kino even lets you control the device through the application. Before I continue on, let me just step back and say something about the IEEE1394 support. Any recent Linux distribution should have IEEE1394 support included (via loadable kernel modules), but on my test system the drivers weren’t automatically loaded. No problem; I just loaded them manually.

modprobe ohci1394
modprobe raw1394
chmod 666 /dev/raw1394

Getting your digital video across the IEEE1394 cable and onto your computer can actually be done easily from the command line with dvgrab. After all, that’s what Kino does to capture video. Although you can just type “dvgrab” and start capturing, the best way to do this is by using the “-i” flag, meaning interactive. You can then control the camera and capture via simple single key presses.

dvgrab -i
Going interactive. Press '?' for help.
q=quit, p=play, c=capture, Esc=stop, h=reverse, j=backward scan,
k=pause, l=forward scan, a=rewind, z=fast forward, 0-9=trickplay,
Capture Started

We get used to working with graphical interfaces, but this is a lot easier and nicer to use than it sounds. The resulting video file on your system will be called dbgrab-XXX.avi by default, the XXX being a three digit extension.

Most modern Linux distributions will have some version of Kino included with the distribution CDs but this also happens to be the sort of software where more recent tends to be a very good thing. Building from source isn’t a big deal, but you will need the GNOME 2 and GTK2+ development libraries on your system. Check the Requirements tab on the Kino website for full details. When you have everything you need, it’s just a classic extract and build five step. If you’d rather not build from scratch, binaries are available from the site as well.

Kino’s interface is clean and easy to navigate (figure 4). To the right of the main window, there are tabs indicating the various functions, from capturing to editing to exporting the finished product. The Edit tab is where most of the work happens (after the Capture, of course). This is where you cut or join scenes, as well as inserting additional files to your video project. The Timeline tab breaks up the current scene (and video clip) into multiple frames so you can easily jump to any part of the video without having to play the whole thing.

There’s also an FX tab that lets you add various special effects to your videos. These include things like reverse video, sepia tones, mirror and kaleidescope effects and so on. Audio effects include fade in, fade out, and silence.

[ Figure 4, “Editing a home movie with Kino” ]

Once you start truly enjoying your digital video camera, you are going to record more than just a few minutes of tape. The reason I mention this is that when you are capturing output from your digital camera with Kino, a number of large files will be created, each about 820 megabytes in size and each sequential for the duration of the video. Those mega-files aren’t what you want your final product to be however. That’s what the Export tab is all about. Various options are available here (in a group of sub-tabs) including just exporting the audio track to WAV files. I also like the fact that I can export stills of individual frames. The option I tend to use the most however, is DV pipe and this is where ffmpeg makes an encore appearance.

After all the editing, cutting, and pasting is done, I export my finished product via ffmpeg to either video CD AVI files or DVD format. The resulting files (eg: VCD AVI format) are much smaller and much more manageable. One hour of digital video takes up about 9 gigabytes of disk space. The exported video, however, fits nicely on a single 700 megabyte CD-ROM.

We’ve covered a lot today and as much as we can all feel the pull of the footlights and, of course, stardom, the clock tells me that closing time has arrived.

As you can see mes amis, your Linux system provides some great tools to make you, or your software, a star. Speaking of which, it seems as though closing time has already arrived and judging by the wine-induced smiles on some of your faces, we have the opportunity to capture some memorable video. I jest, of course. François, do be so kind as to refill our guests’ glasses one more time. Perhaps what we should capture for posterity is our parting toast. Until next time, mes amis, let us all drink to one another’s health.

A votre santé! Bon appétit!



Kino and dvgrab

xvidcap / gvidcap

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