For indie filmmakers, Apple’s Final Cut Pro currently wears the NLE (nonlinear editing) systems’ crown, and with professional editors such as Walter Murch and renowned filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, David Fincher and the Coen Brothers having already made the switch, Final Cut Pro has been steadily moving in on Avid’s professional reign. Apple recently released Final Cut Studio 3, which brought over 100 new features to its suite, which includes Final Cut Pro, Motion, Soundtrack Pro, Color and Compressor. Perhaps the most significant upgrade to the suite is the expansion of additional ProRes codecs in Final Cut Pro 7.
In a nutshell, Apple ProRes is a video codec that was invented to streamline the postproduction workflow. When transcoding large uncompressed HD files that can eat up hard drive storage to a ProRes codec (i.e., HDCAM 4:4:4)—or highly compressed, complex codecs (i.e., H.264, AVCHD)—an editor can now work with full-frame, 10-bit, 4:2:2 high-def video, with files that are smaller than standard-def files. The first two ProRes codecs—ProRes 422 and ProRes 422 (HQ)—were released with Final Cut Studio 2 in 2007. The three new codecs Apple added to its suite are ProRes 4444, ProRes 422 (LT) and ProRes 422 (Proxy).
ProRes 4444, aka “Four by Four,” is ProRes’ highest-quality codec and is best suited for uncompressed shots captured in 4:4:4, in either RGB or YCbCr color space. High-end digital cameras such as the Panavision Genesis, Grass Valley Viper or Sony F23 can record in this format. (The codec also is recommended for footage shot with the RED ONE.) ProRes 4444 supports 12-bit pixel depth, which preserves the highest-quality color detail. ProRes 422 (LT) supports full-width (1920×1080) 10-bit video, but with a lower data rate of 100 Mb/s or less. Because of the smaller video sizes, LT is best-suited for broadcast environments where storage needs are a bit more limited. Like LT, ProRes 422 (Proxy) supports full-frame, 10-bit, 4:2:2 video, but with an even lower data rate (36 Mb/s). The “Proxy” codec will be used more as a “draft mode” or for general preview when doing offline-editing work.
The addition of these new codecs was the result of new HD cameras and technology—from high-end professional cameras like the Sony F35 and ARRIFLEX D-21 to the latest video DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 7D. With the arrival of new cameras every year, the number of codecs has increased.
“We started to get these formats that were increasing codec complexity that were great acquisition codecs, but not that good for editorial purposes,” says Apple’s Director of Pro Video Product Marketing, Richard Townhill. “At the same time, we were talking to editors who wanted to work at the highest possible quality, which was uncompressed. Many of the new cameras—from HDV to XDCAM EX—had a color sampling weakness when it came to dealing with multiple layers of compositing. Even though the formats are optimized for native editing, if you want to do any layering or multigenerational work, you start to lose color data due to the color subsampling of those codecs. ProRes offers a very high-quality, visually lossless codec with very modest data rates designed and heavily optimized for editorial workflow.”
Although working with ProRes may make your postproduction workflow more efficient, in many situations, it’s not always essential. For example, if you’re shooting with a Panasonic camcorder capturing DVCPRO, Townhill recommends that you edit natively with DVCPRO.
As a result of the large number of Sony EX1 and EX3 users, one of the most popular codecs of the moment is XDCAM EX.
“DVCPRO is a really great codec, and you probably would not get that much of an advantage by transcoding it to ProRes,” he explains. “We’re very much in favor of native editing. ProRes is designed to be just another tool in your shed.”