Notes on using GIMP and Kdenlive for animation

08.12.2018 12:01

This summer I made a 60-second hand-drawn animation using GIMP and Kdenlive. I thought I might write down some notes about the process I used and the software problems I had to work around. Perhaps someone else considering a similar endeavor will find them useful.

For sake of completion, the hardware I used for image and video editing was a Debian GNU/Linux system with 8 GB of RAM and an old quad-core i5 750 CPU. For drawing I used a 7" Wacom Intuos tablet. For some rough sketches I also used an old iPad Air 2 with Animation Creator HD and a cheap rubber finger-type stylus. Animation Creator was the only proprietary software I used.

Screenshot of the GIMP Onion Layers plug-in.

I drew all the final animation cels in GIMP 2.8.18, as packaged in Debian Stretch. I've used my Onion Layers plug-in extensively and added several enhancements to it as work progressed: It now has the option to slightly color tint next and previous frames to emphasize in which direction outlines are moving. I also added new shortcuts for adding a layer to all frames and adding a new frame. I found that GIMP will quite happily work with images with several hundreds of layers in 1080p resolution and in general I didn't encounter any big problems with it. The only thing I missed was an easier way to preview the animation with proper timings, although flipping through frames by hand using keyboard shortcuts worked quite well.

For some of the trickier sequences I used the iPad to draw initial sketches. The rubber stylus was much too imprecise to do final outlines with it, but I found drawing directly on the screen more convenient for experimenting. I later imported those sketches into GIMP using my Animation Creator import plug-in and then drew over them.

Comparison of different methods of coloring cels in GIMP.

A cel naively colored using Bucket Fill (left), manually using the Paintbrush Tool (middle) and using the Color Layer plug-in (right).

I've experimented quite a bit with how to efficiently color-in the finished outlines. Normal Bucket Fill leaves transparent pixels if used on soft anti-aliased outlines. The advice I got was to color the outlines manually with a Paintbrush Tool, but I found that much too time consuming. In the end I made a quick-and-ugly plug-in that helped automate the process somewhat. It used thresholding to create a sharp outline on a layer beneath the original outline. I then used Bucket Fill on that layer. This preserved somewhat the the quality of the initial outline.

I mostly used one GIMP XCF file per scene for cels and one file for the backgrounds (some scenes had multiple planes of backgrounds for parallax scrolling). I exported individual cels using the Export Layers into transparent-background PNG files. For the scene where I had two characters I later wished that I had one XCF file per character since that would make it easier to adjust timing.

I imported the background and cels into Kdenlive. Backgrounds were simple static Image Clips. For cels I mostly used Slideshow Clips with a small frame duration (e.g. 3 frame duration for 8 frames per second). For some scenes I instead imported individual cels separately as images and dragged them manually to the timeline if I wanted to adjust timing of individual cels. That was quite time consuming. The cels and backgrounds were composited using a large number of Composite & Transform transitions.

Kdenlive timeline for a single scene.

I was first using Kdenlive 16.12.2 as packaged by Debian but later found it too unstable. I switched to using the 18.04.1 AppImage release from the Kdenlive website. Switching versions was painful, since the project file didn't import properly in the newer version. Most transitions were wrong, so I had to redo much of the editing process.

I initially wanted to do everything in one monolithic Kdenlive project. However this proved to be increasingly inconvenient as work progressed. Even 18.04.1 was getting unstable with a huge number of clips and tracks on the timeline. I also was having trouble properly doing nice-looking dissolves between scenes that involved multiple tracks. Sometimes seemingly independent Composite & Transforms were affecting each other in unpredictable ways. So in the end I mostly ended up with one Kdenlive project per scene. I rendered each such scene to a lossless H.264 and then imported the rendered scenes into a master Kdenlive project for final editing.

Regarding Kdenlive stability, I had the feeling that it doesn't like Color Clips for some reason, or transitions to blank tracks. I'm not sure if there's really some bug or it was just my imagination (I couldn't reliably reproduce any crash that I encountered), but it seemed that the frequency of crashes went down significantly when I put one track with an all-black PNG at the bottom of my projects.

In general, the largest problem I had with Kdenlive was an issue with scaling. My Kdenlive project was 720p, but all my cels and backgrounds were in 1080p. It appeared that sometimes Composite & Transform would use 720p screen coordinates and sometimes 1080p coordinates in unpredictable ways. I think that the renderer implicitly scales down the bottom-most track to the project size, if at some point in time it sees a frame larger than the project size. In the end I couldn't figure the exact logic behind it and I had to resort to randomly experimenting until it worked. Having separate, simpler project files for each scene helped this significantly.

Comparison of Kdenlive scaling quality.

Frame scaled explicitly from 1080p to 720p using Composite & Transform (left) and scaled implicitly during rendering (right).

Another thing I noticed was the the implicit scaling of video tracks seemed to use lower-quality scaling algorithm than the Composite & Transform, resulting in annoying visible changes in image quality. In the end, I forcibly scaled all tracks to 720p using an extra Composite & Transform, even when one was not explicitly necessary.

Comparison of luminosity on transition to black using Composite & Transform and Fade to black.

Comparison of luminosity during a one second transition from a dark scene to black between Fade to black effect and Composite & Transform transition. Fade to black reaches black faster than it should, but luminosity does not jump up and down.

I was initially doing transitions between scenes using the Composite & Transform because I found adjusting the alpha values through keyframes more convenient than setting lengths of Fade to/from black effects. However I noticed that the Composite & Transform seems to have some kind of a rounding issue and transitions using it were showing a lot of bands and flickering in the final render. In the end I switched to using Dissolves and Fade to/from black which looked better.

Finally, some minor details about video encoding I learned. The H.264 quality setting in Kdenlive (CRF) is inverted. Lower values mean higher quality. H.264 uses YUV color space, while my drawings were in RGB color space. After rendering the final video some shades of gray got a bit of a green tint, which was due to the color space conversion in Kdenlive. As far as I know there is no way to help with that. GIMP and PNG only support RGB. In any case, that was quite minor and I was assured that I only saw it since I was starting at these drawings for so long.

"Home where we are" title card.

How to sum this up? Almost every artist I talked with recommended using proprietary animation software and was surprised when I told them what I'm using. I think in general that is reasonable advice (although the prices of such software seem anything but reasonable for a summer project). I was happy to spend some evenings writing code and learning GIMP internals instead of drawing, but I'm pretty sure that's more an exception than the rule.

There were certainly some annoyances that made me doubt my choice of software. Redoing all editing after switching Kdenlive versions was one of those things. Other things were perhaps just me being too focused on minor technical details. In any case, I remember doing some projects with Cinelerra many years ago and I think Kdenlive is a quite a significant improvement over it in terms of user interface and stability. Of course, neither GIMP nor Kdenlive were specifically designed for this kind of work (but I've heard Krita got native support for animations, so it might be worth checking out). If anything, the fact that it was possible for me to do this project shows how flexible open source tools can be, even when they are used in ways they were not meant for.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life


I suggest you to try Krita, that has a powerful animation tool. I used GIMP before, but it's slow develop make me find Krita and I love it.

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