hieroglyph2beamer with Pandoc

I’ve played with getting Sphinx to generate PDFs before, and while rst2pdf generates a PDF with all the notes and pictures present, the results aren’t as beautifully typeset as I’ve come to expect from LaTeX.

This made me wonder whether any tool exists to convert Hieroglyph slides into Beamer presentations.


Skip to the end if you just want the code for converting Hieroglyph sources to Beamer slides.

Why not just write LaTeX?

I sometimes do write LaTeX directly, such as for my resume. LaTeX is the right choice when a project requires:

  • Extremely precise control of spacing, text size, and text position
  • Output only to PDF
  • Infrequent and relatively minor changes

However, the tradeoff is that one types a lot of boilerplate LaTeX code for a relatively small amount of output, and the resulting documents are relatively difficult to modify.

I find that slides are a better fit with ReStructuredText’s strengths:

  • Minimal boilerplate
    • Easy to read as plain text
    • Fast to modify
    • Styling is completely divorced from content (HTML vs CSS)
  • Supported out of the box almost everywhere I need it
    • Toolchain fits my needs
  • Powerful enough to describe image scaling and tables
    • This is my major complaint against Markdown

So, I want to keep writing ReStructuredText, but I want the prettiness of Beamer slides. It’s time to see whether a tool for this has already been built for me, or whether I’ll have to make it myself.

Install Pandoc

Pip only has pandoc up through 1.0.0a8, which raises an import error if it can’t find a version of itself that starts with 1.12 / 1.13. So, I need system pandoc.

Let’s see if we can get a system pandoc of a more recent version:

$ yaourt -S pandoc-static

This takes quite a long time because it brings in a bunch of Haskell toolchain stuff, ghc in particular. The amount of memory consumed by Yaourt’s attempt to install Pandoc caused the rather disadvantaged laptop I’m currently using to freeze up, but cabal update; cabal install pandoc worked fine.

Make Slides

~/.cabal/bin/pandoc -t beamer index.rst -o test.pdf

It generates pretty Beamer slides, just like that! If you want to get fancier with it, this blog post is an interesting read.

Comparison to Sphinx’s make latexpdf

  1. Pandoc builds slides. make latexpdf doesn’t.

2) make latexpdf is incredibly loud. Pandoc is silent. Loud, you say? Running it with its default settings yields more lines of output than there were lines in the source it’s comiling, and that’s just silly.:

$ wc -l index.rst
$ make latexpdf | wc -l

3) Pandoc is better at making the images the right size. With its default settings, each image fills its slide, which is how they look when built by Hieroglyph.

  1. Pandoc goes over twice as fast:

    $ time make latexpdf
    real    2m14.815s
    user    2m12.820s
    sys 0m0.783s
    time ~/.cabal/bin/pandoc -t beamer index.rst -o test.pdf
    real    0m57.835s
    user    0m57.523s
    sys 0m0.233s

Allow Page Breaks

My slides are somewhat atypical in that all the useful content is in the speaker notes, and the slides are filled by pictures for people to look at if they get bored listening to me.

I typically make a PDF copy of my slides for distribution after a talk, so it’s nice when readers can see my speaker notes. They’re currently where all of my reference URLs and other bonus content reside. Notes are visible by default in Pandoc’s beamer output, but they tend to be pushed off the slides by the large images.

Beamer has an allowframebreaks option, which makes sure all your content is visible by wrapping it to as many slides as needed. I learned how to inject a custom preamble from agoldst’s lecture notes repo.

First, put the following lines into preamble.tex:


Then tell Pandoc to include it in the “header”::

$ ~/.cabal/bin/pandoc -t beamer -H preamble.tex -V fontsize=8pt index.rst -o test.pdf

The Pipe Problem

Sphinx and Hieroglyph allow the use of pipes (|) to force a blank line in html output, which I often use to align my images aesthetically in my slides. However, this use of pipes is neither mentioned in the rst spec nor supported by Pandoc.

Although the functionality of ignoring pipes could probably be implemented as a filter, I decided to take the path of less Haskell-writing and leverage Pandoc’s ability to behave like a nice Unix utility.:

sed 's/^|$//' index.rst | ~/.cabal/bin/pandoc -t beamer -f rst -o test.pdf -H preamble.tex

Note that in this command I also tell Pandoc the file type it’s converting from, with the -f option.

Shrinking Figures A Bit


Pandoc tries to emit its output in the format specified by the extension of the output file that you give it. -o test.pdf renders the Beamer slides as a pdf, whereas -o test.tex simply produces LaTeX which could later be rendered into slides. This is helpful for debugging purposes.

The output is getting prettier, but there are still blank slides before some of the images. It appears that the blank slides are only inserted before the images whose height is close to the full height of the slide.

In the LaTeX source of the pandoc-generated beamer slides, figures look something like this:


I’m using the preamble trick mentioned above to customize each figure. I found the parameters for scaling only those images which would otherwise be too large on stackoverflow. Renewing the \includegraphics command is tricky, because it has an optional parameter, but it can be done with the letltxmacro package. I added these lines to my preamble.tex:


Now images are displayed as no larger than half the size of the total text area on a slide.

All Together Now

The Makefile gets these lines. Remember to use hard tabs, not spaces, because it is a Makefile:

    sed "s/^|$$//" index.rst | ~/.cabal/bin/pandoc -t beamer -f rst -V fontsize=8pt -o $(BUILDDIR)/slides.pdf -H preamble.tex
    @echo "Build finished. The PDF is at $(BUILDDIR)/slides.pdf."

And the preamble.tex gets the following:

% Allow notes to wrap to additional slides.

% Prevent spurious blank slides by shrinking images when needed.

Now make pdf turns the index.rst of Hieroglyph slides into a relatively beautiful Beamer presentation!