Linux at NAB

by Robin Rowe

This month we're taking a break from installing Linux video software to report on the cool Linux video applications shown at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas, April 21-26, 2001. Every April, television chief engineers, station managers and everyone else with an interest in professional video gear make the trek to Las Vegas for the NAB. With more than 115,000 attendees and 1,700 exhibits, NAB is one of the largest tradeshows in the world. Computer enthusiasts may be more familiar with CES (122,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibitors) and COMDEX (225,000 attendees and 2,300 exhibitors). By acreage all three shows are about the same size: a million square feet. Bring your hiking boots.

At NAB Linux was a much bigger presence than last year. Special effects offerings included RAYZ from Silicon Grail, Shake from Nothing Real and Maya from Alias|Wavefront. Linux Media Arts showcased the Cinelerra Quicktime video editor and the Kino DV editor. AMD briefed video developers on getting the most from Athlon. BOXX Technologies offered the 3DBOXX Graphics workstation. Video board makers presented Hauppauge and DVS. For Linux settop boxes, ATI, OpenTV and Phillips TiVo were there. Khronos and ProMpeg Forum each made announcements of significant Linux media APIs. And, at the NAB conference, there was a presentation on Linux and MP3 by Radio Free Asia.

“The vast majority of high-end production shops will convert to Linux in the next eighteen months”, says Ray Feeney, a four-time Academy Award-winner for Scientific and Engineering Achievement and the technical chair of the Visual Effects Society ( VES participants include special effects artists from ILM, DreamWorks, Pixar, PDI, Disney's The Secret Lab and Sony. VES members are discussing how to transition the industry to Linux. For years SGI IRIX was the OS of choice for studio film projects, and many haven't been satisfied with the support they have received since switching to Windows. Because Linux is open source, it is an OS for which the industry can develop motion picture features, and its ubiquity makes it much easier to find users more familiar with it than with IRIX.

“Nobody is buying anything now”, said Feeney at NAB, “but once the writers' strike situation is over there will be restructuring. Today when people have rendering requirements they are going to Linux. The rendering side is solved and turnkey.” Feeney compares the state of the art in Linux graphics workstations to where Linux servers were two years ago when first used in a major production, for rendering Titanic. He expects Linux will dominate in two years on graphics workstations, not just servers. ILM has already begun using Linux for workstations as well as rendering.

Feeney is also the founder of Silicon Grail, a company showing their next generation compositing tool RAYZ in the Compaq booth at NAB. Designed for creating feature film effects, RAYZ runs on Linux, IRIX and Windows. Production that originated on film is first digitized by a film scanner such as the Kodak Cineon. Although each frame may be stored as a separate image file (e.g., in Targa format), to the RAYZ operator it still looks like a movie. Effects filters are diagramed left-to-right in the graph window for ease of manipulation, and the effects results are visible in the video playback window. Completed movies may be transferred back to film or to video tape.

RAYZ is Silicon Grail's next generation interactive compositor based on their Chalice software. Chalice was used on Deep Blue Sea, Prince of Egypt, Star Trek: Insurrection, Titanic, Fantasia 2000, Men in Black and many other motion pictures. It provides effects and color correction tools. For a typical configuration RAYZ is expected to cost $9,900. RAYZ was in public beta at the time of NAB, for release in May (see

Maya Linux Screenshot

Maya from SGI company Alias|Wavefront is a widely used professional 3-D animation and visual effects package. At NAB, Alias|Wavefront announced Maya 4, with enhancements and optimizations in the areas of rendering, character animation, brush and paint tools, and games-related functionality. Enhancements to the Maya non-linear motion editing technology include time warping, character merging, drag and drop, and character set editing. New character animation features include switching between forward kinematics and inversion kinematics, quaternion-based IK, motion trails, ghosting and a jiggle deformer to wobble character muscles.

“Customer demand for a Linux version of Maya has driven this development”, says Alias|Wavefront entertainment business general manager Bob Bennett. That decision was influenced by feedback from the Technical Committee of the Visual Effects Society. Linus Torvalds called Maya 3 “the most complex and powerful 3-D graphics application ever to run on Linux” when the Linux port was announced in the summer of 2000.

Maya was used by ILM for The Perfect Storm, by The Secret Lab for Mission to Mars, by Sony Pictures Imageworks for The Hollow Man and by many other productions. Alias|Wavefront demonstrated Maya 4 for IRIX and Windows at NAB, due for release the end of June. The Linux version is expected six to eight weeks later. Prices start at $7,500 (see

Shake 2.4 Linux Screenshot

Shake from Nothing Real (Venice, California) is high-speed compositing software optimized for visual effects for feature films. New features in Shake 2.4 include vector-based procedural paint, advanced color correction tools, a new rotoscoping node and ease-of-use improvements. It is resolution independent and automatically handles different bit-depths (8, 16, 32) and resolutions (Web, 601, HDTV, film, IMAX).

Shake has been used in over 60 feature films, and since its debut, has been used in every Oscar winner for visual effects including Titanic, What Dreams May Come, The Matrix and Gladiator. Shake runs on Linux, IRIX and Windows. Shake 2.4 entered beta testing in February and is scheduled for release shortly after the NAB. Prices start at $9,900 (see

Linux Media Arts (Burbank, California) creates turnkey video editing and media-streaming systems for video, film, audio and the Internet. LMA president Mike Collins says, “Our goal is to make Linux the premier multimedia editing and media production platform in the world, largely using open-source software.” To that end Collins says their mission right now is to create servers and editors for a new high-quality SDDI board they announced at NAB. Until now they have been offering M-JPEG and DV systems.

At NAB LMA demonstrated their DV and Quicktime-based editing systems. Bundled software includes Cinelerra and Kino video editors, Blender 3D, the GIMP, Corel Draw and Red Hat Linux. Systems are based on AMD, Intel and Compaq Alpha chips. Prices start at $1,395 with an AMD 1GHz processor (see

Kino is a simple cuts-only DV video editor. DV is the format used by most consumer digital camcorders. Author Arne Schirmacher in Germany says, “Kino allows you to record, create, save, edit and play movies recorded with DV camcorders. Although it has windows and menus, it is actually a keyboard-driven program. It uses many keyboard commands that are similar to the vi text editor.” (See

At NAB Jason Howard of LMA demonstrated Kino 0.4 as part of a suite of tools for DV to DVD production. Howard is the developer of dvcont, a DV camera-control utility. Other open-source DV utilities include dvgrab (also by Schirmacher) and dvsend. The dvgrab utility moves footage from the camera to the computer using the 1394 protocol. The dvsend utility moves edited material back onto camcorder video tape.

Howard is also a partner in the video production company Spectsoft (Oakdale, California). Currently a mixed Windows/Linux facility, partner Ramona Howard (Jason Howard's mom) is keen to move entirely to Linux in order to have increased control over the production process. As a video producer she encourages Jason to develop more open-source software. Jason Howard says, “All it takes is one person to have a passion in Linux. That's all of us, and a lot of soda!”

Howard is currently working on a transcoder utility to move footage between AVI and Quicktime to enable transferring material easily between Kino and Cinelerra. He is also working on selectively grabbing DV camera footage based on an edit decision list (see

Cinelerra is a Quicktime-based video editor from Heroine Virtual. They are well known in the Linux community for their Broadcast 2000 editor (see “Moviemaking in a Linux Box?” January 2001) and XMovie player. Cinelerra was announced and shown at NAB. It is a resolution-independent editor with over 100 real-time video and audio filters, has support for five-channel audio and is designed to run on multiprocessor hardware. Heroine Virtual bundles its software with systems manufactured by Linux Media Arts (see

Chipmaker AMD (Sunnyvale, California) briefed video developers at NAB on how to take advantage of processor advances in their Athlon and Duron chips. Audio/video development engineer Jim Bovenzi says, “Dual processor solutions are key to maximizing performance in video applications. Dual Athlons provide incredible performance.” AMD demonstrated the OnAir DTV 1080i HDTV card from Sasem running on Windows XP (see and

WinTV-HD is an HDTV card offered by Hauppauge (Hauppauge, New York). The Hauppauge WinTV card is very popular among Linux users. Unfortunately, according to a Hauppauge engineer the WinTV-HD architecture is quite different. The Linux community faces another reverse engineering job to support the WinTV-HD card shown at NAB. Hauppauge has no plans for Linux support. The WinTV-HD card costs $399 (see Another Windows consumer HDTV card at NAB was accessDTV for $479 (see

The HDStationOEM is an uncompressed HDTV real-time I/O card for professional applications. Maker DVS Digital Video (Glendale, California) says they offer Linux drivers. However, the $40,000 price tag puts it squarely in the pro market. In supports 1080p and even 2k film resolution (see

The Linux-powered TiVo settop box sold by Phillips was on display, as was a new settop from ATI Technologies (Ontario, Canada) based on their ALL-IN-WONDER. An engineering model running on a Linux PC was in their booth. ATI offers Linux drivers for their new Fire GL4 high-end graphics card that's $1,995. Settop developer OpenTV (Mountain View, California) announced their intention to support Linux (see, and


3DBOXX is a series of high-performance Windows and Linux workstations offered by BOXX Technologies (Austin, Texas) for digital applications such as film, HDTV, video and game development. One user of 3DBOXX Linux machines is Blur, a visual effects, animation and design studio located in Venice, California. They produced a four-minute stereo 3-D 70mm ride for Paramount Parks called The 7th Portal. 3DBOXX systems start at $2,309. RenderBOXX server systems start at $2,692 (see

OpenML is a new API that hopes to do for video software developers what OpenGL has done for graphics developers. The Khronos Group consists of leading graphics and digital media companies including 3Dlabs, ATI, Discreet, Evans & Sutherland, Intel, NVIDIA, SGI and Sun Microsystems. The Khronos Group announced at NAB that they had completed the OpenML 1.0 Specification. OpenML is based on the dmSDK, which SGI recently made open source, and MLdc, an abstraction layer for display devices. Video effects software maker Discreet is helping to drive the requirements. Neil Trevett of 3Dlabs who made the announcement says, “We hope to encourage an open-source implementation in Linux.” (See and

The release of the AAF (Advanced Authoring Format) software development kit version 1.0 was announced by the Pro-MPEG Forum at NAB. The software is intended to interchange video, audio and metadata in postproduction applications (see and

Besides exhibitors, there was a Linux-specific session in the NAB conference: “Linux and MP3 for Archiving”. Radio Free Asia ( broadcasts via shortwave radio and the Web in Tibetan, Cantonese, Uyghur, Burmese, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer (to Cambodia) and Korean (to North Korea). RFA is a private corporation funded by the US Congress to bring news and information to populations lacking a free press. Their first broadcast was to China in September 1996. RFA broadcasts 34 hours of programming per day in nine languages.

RFA production support manager A. J. Janitschek and lead technical engineer Tom Hallewell described the evolution of the RFA MP3 archive technology. “At Radio Free Asia we used to archive all of our audio as WAV files onto 4GB DAT tapes”, said Janitschek. But that was expensive, labor intensive and inconvenient to search and retrieve. “With our current system we can store 100 hours of archive programming on a single CD-ROM and make it available to anyone who has an MP3 player on their PC”, added Hallewell.

RFA uses about 15 CD-ROMs to archive a month's audio (1,020 hours). They use three different 16-bit encoding settings: 1) 32khz, 48kbs and 20MB/hr for broadcast quality (over shortwave); 2) 16khz, 16kbs and 7MB/hr for long-term storage; and 3) 12khz, 14kbs and 6MB/hr for broadcast on the Web.

RFA doesn't encode their MP3 streams on a PC, but uses the Telos Audioactive Realtime MPEG Internet Audio Encoder. This rackmount box multicasts MP3s that they capture on their Linux archive system and burn onto CD-ROMs. Janitschek says the advantages of a hardware encoder include real-time performance and the fact that MP3 patent licenses (to Fraunhofer and THOMSON) are covered. The unit sells for $2,800 (see

RFA not only uses Linux to archive their content, they also are contributing to open-source software. R-BOSS (Radio-Broadcast Open Source System) is a collection of digital broadcast content management applications written using Python. Also available is their 3D-Project, a free distribution of broadcast specific 3-D drawings, material and texture bitmap files. For further information or to download, see

Radio Free Asia Screenshot

And there were other Linux exhibitors at NAB. Real Networks offered streaming and playing on Linux. Kasenna was showing their asset management system, which supports Linux. Thomcast Communications introduced the DCX Millennium Digital Transmitter, which can be controlled by Linux. No doubt there were many more Linux applications that we missed.

Next month we will return to our project of upgrading our Debian Linux installation to the 2.4 kernel and XFree86 4.x GUI. Time permitting, we will also install an ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon graphics card.

Robin Rowe is a partner in, a technology company that creates internet and broadcast video applications. He has written for Dr. Dobb's Journal, the C++ Report, the C/C++ Users Journal and Data Based Advisor. His software designs include a client/server video editing system in use at a Manhattan 24-hour broadcast television news station, Time Warner New York One and associated web site You can reach him at
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